Ahead of Mohali semi-final: Pakistan takes lead in diplomatic gestures

WikiLeaks reveals that Pakistan scrambled jets, put air force on alert after the call.

ISLAMABAD: In an attempt to take a lead in peace-making gestures, Pakistan on Sunday remitted the sentence of an Indian man held in a Pakistan jail for the last 27 years, soon after Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani accepted his Indian counterpart’s invitation to watch the Cricket World Cup semi-final match between the two countries’ teams.

President Asif Ali Zardari remitted the sentence of Gopal Das, who was first sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987, on the advice of the prime minister, according to the president’s spokesperson Farhatullah Babar.

The remission was granted on humanitarian grounds to honour an appeal made two weeks ago by the Supreme Court of India for Das’ release, whose family say he had mistakenly crossed the border in 1984.

Das had entered a plea to the Indian apex court through his brother, which ruled that while it had no jurisdiction in Pakistan, it could make an appeal for his release to the Pakistan government.

“We cannot give any direction to Pakistan authorities because we have no jurisdiction over them. The Indian authorities have done all that they could in the matter. However, that does not prevent us from making a request  to the Pakistani authorities to consider the appeal of the petitioner for releasing him on humanitarian ground by remitting the remaining path of his sentence.”

Justice Markandey Katju of the Indian Supreme Court reportedly also quoted Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz in his ruling: “Qafas uddas hai yaaro sabaa se kuch to kaho, Kaheen to beher-e-khuda aaj zikr-e-yaar chale.” (The prison is gloomy; O Friends! Tell the eastern wind, To at least allow some talk of my beloved for divinity’s sake)

The remission is mostly symbolic since it comes only a few months before he was scheduled to be released. However, it is being viewed as another gesture on the part of Pakistan towards improving relations between the two South Asian rivals.

The move follows Prime Minister Gilani’s acceptance of his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh’s invitation to watch the semi-final of the ICC Cricket World Cup 2011 between the Indian and Pakistani teams being held at Mohali, India on March 30.

“The extension of the invitation by the Indian premier and our acceptance indicate that both the countries are seriously coming closer with a realisation that dialogue is the only way forward,” said Firdous Ashiq Awan, the federal information minister.

Pakistan’s cricket team will play its first match on Indian soil after the attack in Mumbai on November 26, 2008 which was blamed on militant groups based in Pakistan. Cricketing ties between the two countries were suspended after that attack.

The two countries have a history of cricket diplomacy successfully being used to thaw ties between them. In February 1987, with tensions between both sides high and troops massed on either side of the border, then-president Ziaul Haq visited India, ostensibly to watch a cricket match. Yet the conversation that took place between him and then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi led to a lowering of tensions over the coming months.

While analysts are cautious about a breakthrough, the resumption of the composite dialogue, the first step of which begins with the interior secretaries of both countries meeting in New Delhi on Monday (today) is seen as a sign that the match, and President Zardari’s gesture, may become part of a wave of diplomatic goodwill on both sides.