An elderly, bed-ridden man sentenced to life imprisonment in an ‘enemy’ country for a murder he didn’t commit awaits the signature on his clemency petition. By Beena Sarwar and Shivam Vij
Human rights activists in India are renewing their efforts for the release of the elderly Pakistani prisoner Dr Khalil Chishty lodged in Ajmer prison hospital, whose mercy petition awaits just one signature from the Rajasthan Governor Shivraj Patil. The mercy petition had earlier been approved by the state government and had reached Patil in June this year. At that point, it was expected that Dr Chishty, 78, a renowned virologist bed-ridden with various illnesses in jail, would soon be released.
Instead, Governor Patil raised a set of questions for the state government to answer. The Rajasthan government has answered all the queries, but has not submitted the file to the Governor again – perhaps because, according to sources, the Governor has already indicated that he will not sign the petition.
This is a real travesty of justice. The case goes back to 1992, when Dr Chishty, a retired Pakistani scientist and professor, was visiting his mother and relatives in Ajmer. Members of their clan with whom they had a dispute attacked their house, jumping onto the rooftop and thus avoiding the two police constables stationed at the gate due to the threats being received by the family.
In the ensuing fracas on the rooftop, one of the attackers was killed – a murder for which Dr Chishty was accused, although he was not even physically present when the fight took place and the shots were fired. The constables who were stationed at the house when the attack took place have corroborated his version and acknowledged that Dr Chishty was downstairs during the entire incident. He has always maintained his innocence, stating that he came to the rooftop only after hearing that his nephew was injured.
The shot that killed one of the attackers was in fact fired by Dr Chishty’s nephew Yaseer Chishty, who recently told a reporter: “I was a juvenile then so they could not make me an accused. Since chacha jaan is a Pakistani, they found him an easy target. Even I was detained but I was released.”
After being arrested in 1992, Dr Chishty was imprisoned for some time, and then allowed bail, but kept under house arrest until his conviction in January. He has since then been imprisoned again. During this period of nearly two decades, he has been unable to go home to Pakistan, as PUCL has noted. He has lived a life of isolation, closely monitored, in a farm on the outskirts of Ajmer. In contrast, the others accused in the case, all of them Indians, got their sentences suspended by the Rajasthan High Court.
Incomprehensibly, the Rajasthan High Court, while turning down Dr Chishty’s plea for suspension of the sentence, observed that he could be shown “no leniency” as he was a Pakistani national. At the same time, it granted identical appeals by the three others convicted in the case.
Earlier this year, prominent Indian citizens Kuldip Nayar veteran journalist, Mahesh Bhatt, film maker, Admiral L Ramdas, retired Indian Navy chief, Kavita Srivastava, Secretary General of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and Jatin Desai, journalist, Focus on the Global South, India sent letters of appeal to the President of India as well as the Governor of Rajasthan. Urging Dr Chishty’s early release, they wrote: “Our inquiry reveals that he was falsely implicated.”
They further noted: “The trial took almost 20 years when he was finally convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in January of 2011. While he was out on bail for almost 18 years, he never violated bail. He was always present whenever he was asked to report to the police or the courts.”
In a Sept 5, 2011 a memorandum to the Rajasthan Chief Minister, Ashok Gehlot, urging him to send the file to the Governor, Kavita Srivastava of PUCL notes: “This too is a case of a man who has been wrongly accused and away from his family for the last twenty years, facing a trial for nineteen years. He never saw his children grow up and now he may not see them at all if the matter continues like this. His wife too is ailing and now with a hearing impairment. We can only wish that the two spend the rest of their days together. For that to be possible you need to take the initiative.”
Under the Constitution of India, both the President and the Governor have power to grant a pardon. Citing the relevant Constitutional provisions, Justice Markandeya Katju of the Supreme Court of India has also unofficially appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to release the Pakistani prisoner on ‘humanitarian grounds’.
Dr Chishty has a history of repeated heart attacks. In March 2010, Dr Chishty fell from his bed and suffered a hip fracture. He needed hip surgery but suffered a heart attack while on the operating table. As a result doctors opted not to operate and he has been left with an unhealed hip fracture that has rendered him unable to walk.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and other top officials have expressed willingness to have Dr Chishty freed. In fact, observers note that there is an unprecedented consensus within the Government from top to bottom that Dr Chishty should be freed, from Jail authorities to Secretaries, Ministers, Chief Minister, and media. Governor Rajasthan must now facilitate, not create obstacles in this case. India and Pakistan have released several prisoners this year.
Dr Chishty’s youngest daughter Amna Chishty in Canada and her sisters in Karachi have applied for visas to India so that they can impress upon Indian officials the urgency of releasing Dr Chishty at the earliest so that he can spend his last days with his family.
(First published in The News, Pakistan, on 7 September 2011.)