India-Pakistan ties hit new low as Sarabjit dies; state-level cremation Friday (Roundup)

New Delhi/Lahore, May 2 (IANS) Indian death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh died in a Pakistani hospital early Thursday, succumbing to his injuries six days after being attacked by his fellow inmates in jail and pushing the fraught India-Pakistan equation to a new low. His body was being brought by a special Air India flight sent to Lahore by the Indian authorities.

At 12.45 a.m. Pakistan time (1.15 a.m. IST), Lahore’s Jinnah hospital announced that Sarabjit was dead, bringing an end to a 23-year saga that began on a fateful August day in 1990 when he crossed over to Pakistan.

Following his death, the authorities in New Delhi and Punjab announced a number of measures, including state-level honours at his cremation, financial assistance to the family and government jobs to both his daughters.

While Pakistan declared him a terrorist and convicted him for blasts in Lahore and Multan that left 14 dead, his family claimed that the devoted brother, husband and father from a poor rural family in Punjab had crossed over in an inebriated state when he was just 26.

Sarabjit will be cremated in his hometown Bhikhiwind in Punjab’s border district of Tarn Taran Friday, amid great anger in the town. A number of leaders are expected to attend the cremation.

Sarabjit’s family, which was in New Delhi, reached Bhikhiwind, 50 km from Amritsar, by helicopter Thursday evening. Scores of local residents gathered at the helipad to meet them and walked with them to their house.

Angry residents of Bhikhiwind held protests Thursday and kept the entire town shut. Shops and educational institutions also remained closed.

Protestors gathered at various places and condemned the “cowardly” act by Pakistani authorities which led to Sarabjit’s death. Residents of the town mourned his death and said the Indian and Pakistani governments could have saved him.

Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal announced three-day mourning for Saranjit and said that he would be given a state-level funeral. He announced government jobs for Sarabjit’s two daughters of Sarabjit and financial assistance of Rs.1 crore.

The union government also announced assistance of Rs.25 lakh to the distraught family.

Most of the years since were spent in anonymity but in death, Sarabjit – who had been brutally assaulted with bricks and plates in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail April 26 and had slipped into a deep coma – became the latest bone of contention between the troubled neighbours.

India’s ministry of external affairs did not mince its words either and said Sarabjit’s death was “put simply, the killing of our citizen while in the custody of Pakistani jail authorities”.

From Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), leaders across the political spectrum expressed their deep anguish at the untimely death of the 49-year-old.

“I am deeply saddened by the passing away of Sarabjit Singh. He was a brave son of India who bore his tribulations with valiant fortitude,” the prime minister said.

“It is particularly regrettable that the government of Pakistan did not heed the pleas of the government of India, Sarabjit’s family and of civil society in India and Pakistan to take a humanitarian view of this case,” the prime minister added.

Expressing deep shock and sorrow at the death of Sarabjit Singh, both houses of parliament Thursday condemned the “inhuman treatment” meted out to him in a Pakistani jail.

“This house expresses its deep sense of shock and sorrow on the demise of Sarabjit Singh, an Indian citizen in Jinnah Hospital, Lahore, in Pakistan, after he was brutally assaulted by fellow inmates in a Pakistani jail,” said identical statements read in both houses.

The statement was read out by Speaker Meira Kumar in the Lok Sabha, and Chairman Hamid Ansari in the Rajya Sabha.

“The house condemns the inhuman treatment meted out to Sarabjit Singh in a Pakistani jail and hopes the culprits will be brought to book,” said the resolution.

As a string of VIPs, including Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde and Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi, went to pay their condolences to Sarabjit’s sister Dalbir Kaur, the BJP upped the ante and demanded that diplomatic relations with Pakistan be scaled down.

“The level of diplomatic relations should be scaled down and for the time being Indian high commissioner to Pakistan should be called back,” BJP president Rajnath Singh said.

Attacking the government on the emotive issue, others spoke out too, including Trinamool Congress’ Mamata Banerjee who said: “This is the result of bad handling of the case.”

But Dalbir Kaur, Sarabjit’s doughty sister who waged a long and hard battle to highlight her brother’s case, asked all political parties to come together and strengthen the government’s hands.

“He was martyred for India. (Pakistan President Asif Ali) Zardari killed him because of elections,” Dalbir Kaur told reporters here.

She said: “The entire country should come together. I appeal to all parties to strengthen the hands of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.”

Dalbir Kaur, who along with Sarabjit’s wife and daughters returned from Pakistan Wednesday claiming they were not being given information on his condition, claimed Sarabjit had written to her that Pakistani authorities had asked him to undergo training in terror camps.

She also alleged a prominent Pakistani human rights activist had demanded money from her to secure Sarabjit’s release, and demanded the visas of all visiting Pakistani activists be cancelled.

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