NEW DELHI (AP) — Indians expressed outrage at the Pakistan government Thursday over the death of a convicted Indian spy who had been attacked with a brick by two fellow inmates in a Pakistan prison, a development New Delhi said has damaged relations between the longtime rival countries.
Sarabjit Singh was attacked Friday and had been comatose and on a ventilator for days before he died early Thursday at Jinnah Hospital in the eastern city of Lahore, according to a Pakistani foreign office statement in Islamabad.
Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his government would arrange to bring Sarabjit Singh’s remains home and for last rites to be conducted in consultation with his family. In a statement, he called it “particularly regrettable” that Pakistan did not heed pleas to take a humanitarian view of the prisoner’s case and allow him to return after he had served 20 years in prison.
Singh was arrested in 1990 after bombings in Lahore and Faisalabad, Pakistan, that killed 14 people. He was convicted of spying and carrying out the bomb blasts, and the death sentence he received was upheld in Pakistani superior courts.
His family maintained Singh was innocent and had entered Pakistan inadvertently from his hometown of Bhikiwind in northern Punjab state bordering Pakistan.
Pakistan’s foreign office said the government was completing all formalities to hand over Singh’s remains to the Indian high commission in Islamabad as early as possible.
Owais Shiekh, Singh’s lawyer in Pakistan, said Singh was fatally wounded after a big struggle. “And as he has been brutally murdered that is very sad, I can share my condolences with the family and the whole Indian nation on this sad moment,” he said.
The nuclear-armed rivals have fought three major wars since they achieved independence from Britain in 1947. Relations have seen several ups and downs in recent years.
The 2008 terror attack in Mumbai brought the neighbors to the brink of war, but tensions eased after intense diplomatic pressure from the international community and a promise by then-Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf to clamp down on the militants.
Relations warmed somewhat in recent years, especially with regard to trade. But ties deteriorated again after border clashes early this year in which three Pakistani soldiers and two Indian soldiers were killed. The deaths ratcheted up tensions in the disputed region of Kashmir, where the two countries have long battled for dominance.
India’s External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid said Thursday that relations between India and Pakistan “have been hurt by this terrible tragedy.”
“For the present, I can only say that it is a terrible psychological and emotional setback to all of us and I believe to what we have been trying to do in terms of creating greater cohesion between people of India and people of Pakistan,” Khurshid told reporters.
Rajnath Singh, president of the main opposition Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party, demanded that India scale down the level of diplomatic ties with Pakistan.
“The Indian high commissioner in Pakistan should be called back for the time being until Pakistan gives credible assurances that it will not allow its territory to be used to promote terrorism against India and that all Indian prisoners are safe in Pakistani jails,” he told reporters.
Singh’s sister Dalbir Kaur, who visited him in the Lahore hospital early this week, on Thursday called for snapping of ties with Pakistan. “It’s a murder by Pakistan,” she said.
Earlier this week, Kaur said she had asked the Indian government to take up with Pakistan the question of tightening Singh’s security after New Delhi hanged Mohammed Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri man, in February. Singh had feared being attacked by some prison inmates, she said.
Guru was convicted in a 2001 attack on India’s Parliament that left 14 people dead. Several rights groups across India and political groups in Indian Kashmir have said that Guru did not get a fair trial. Pakistan’s lower house of parliament passed a resolution condemning the hanging.
Bharatiya Janata leader Ravi Shankar Prasad slammed the Indian government and said he was “very pained by the gross indifference” by the Indian government in not putting enough pressure on Islamabad earlier to seek Singh’s release.
Manish Tewari, India’s information and broadcasting minister, said his government had been pressing Pakistan to release Singh since 2005.
External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin said India demands a thorough investigation to identify who was responsible for the attack.
“This was simply the killing of an Indian citizen while in the custody of Pakistani authorities,” the statement said. The attack “highlights the need for a concerted action by Pakistan to safeguard Indian prisoners in Pakistan.”
AP Writers Sebastian Abbot and Zarar Khan in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.