In a major decision to revert to old rules of allowing access to details of Pakistani prisoners in India, the Central Information Commission (CIC), in an order, has directed the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to provide the complete list of details of arrested Indian and Pakistani civilians and fishermen, which the ministry had stopped providing from January, 2018, onwards.
Mumbai-based RTI activist, Jatin Desai, had filed an appeal with the CIC after he was not provided with the details of the prisoners’ list exchanged between India and Pakistan in 2018.
It is done every year on January 1.
“Under the agreement on consular access, 2008, both countries’ exchange on every January 1 and July 1 consists details like when the prisoner was arrested, charges, consular access was given or not and if yes when, nationality verified or not,” Jatin Desai told India Today TV.
Till July, 2017, Desai said that he was provided the exact copies of the lists exchanged by both sides with all the details spelt out above. However, the MEA refused to divulge details of the prisoners from January 1, 2018.
“I was shocked to see the Chief Public Information Officer (CPIO) of MEA giving only a small portion of data from the lists – pertaining to the names and parents of the arrested civilians and fisherfolk. The right to know of relatives, friends and others must be respected,” Desai said.
His case came up for hearing on February 28, 2019, which was heard by CIC Sudhir Bhargava.
The MEA represented by the CPIO cited “national security” as the reason for not divulging details of the prisoners’ lodged in Indian prisons.
In his order on March 1, CIC Bhargava ruled, “An information shall be ordinarily provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.”
The basic contention of Jatin Desai has been that under the bilateral agreement between the two nations, consular access should be provided within three months of arrest of an individual. But, he points out that the determination of nationality is still not time-bound. The details provide an understanding of the systemic failure when nationality is not determined by either country in an expeditious manner leading to further delays in getting legal recourse and justice.
Arguing for transparency, Desai said, “Actually, such information should be on public domain so relatives of the arrested people can know the status of their relatives. The central government should put it on their websites like MHA’s, Fisheries department’s and MEA’s.”
The ruling orders the CPIO and MEA to provide complete information sought by the RTI activist within four weeks, and disposed off the appeal.
“This is an important order as the complete lists would give an idea of the arrest details, the charges they face, whether consular access was given or not within the mandatory period of three months after they were nabbed,” Desai said.
Lauding the CIC, Desai said, “Such list will help relatives and others to understand status of their relatives. If nationality confirmation is taking time then they can lobby, pursue the matter with the local administration and government.”
This data in the past helped the families and NGOs that work for prisoners on both sides of the border, collect information to chart out a way forward and track the progress of individual cases.
The change of 2017 had impacted families and their access to information which is critical to get their loved ones back.