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Sarabjit's family shocked, big moment for Surjeet's near ones

Jalandhar: The celebrations in Punjab's Bhikhiwind village quickly turned into despair as news came in early Wednesday of Pakistan's apparent flip-flop on the pardon and release of Sarabjit Singh, who is on death row on terrorism charges.

Family members and friends, who had only hours earlier distributed sweets, were stunned at the sudden turn of events.

Hours after first reports that Pakistan was to free Sarabjit Singh, Islamabad late Tuesday clarified that another Indian prisoner named Surjeet Singh, who has been in jail for three decades, would be released instead.

Family members and friends of Sarabjit, who had only hours earlier distributed sweets, were stunned at the sudden turn of events. AFP

"We are shocked by this. We are disappointed and shattered. But we will not give up hope on getting Sarabjit released. We will continue to fight for him. By doing this, Pakistan is playing with our sentiments," Sarabjit's sister Dalbir Kaur said in Jalandhar.

In their village Bhikhiwind, along the India-Pakistan international border about 280 km from the state capital Chandigarh, people gathered at Sarabjit's family home to sympathise with them. Family members and residents who had burst fireworks Tuesday evening were reeling under the shock.

"We still have faith that he will be released. We feel cheated by this turn of events," Poonam, Sarabjit's daughter, said in Bhikhiwind.

The late night development led to celebrations in Phidde village in Punjab's frontier Ferozepur district as Surjeet Singh's family heard the news that he would be released after languishing in Pakistani jails for over three decades.

"It is a big moment for us. The children will now be able to meet their father," Surjeet's wife said at her village.

The clarification from Islamabad came about 1 am with President Asif Ali Zardari's spokesperson saying that Surjeet Singh would be released instead of Sarabjit.

"I think there is some confusion. First, it is not a case of pardon. More importantly, it is not Sarabjit. It is Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. His death sentence was commuted in 1989 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on the advice of then prime minister Benazir Bhutto," presidential spokesperson Farhatullah Babar was quoted as saying by Geo News.

Law Minister Farooq Naek Tuesday conveyed to the interior ministry that Surjeet Singh had completed his life term in jail and ought to be released and sent back to India, Babar said.

Surjeet Singh, currently being held in Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore, has been in Pakistani captivity for over 30 years. He was captured near the border with India on charges of spying during the era of military ruler Zia-ul-Haq.

Earlier in the day, media reports said Zardari had converted Sarabjit Singh's death sentence to life imprisonment and directed authorities to release him if he had completed his prison term.

Sarabjit Singh's family claim that he had crossed into Pakistan inadvertently in August 1990 in an inebriated state and was arrested there.

But Pakistani police say Sarabjit Singh, who is known as Manjit Singh there, was involved in acts of terrorism. Sarabjit has been languishing in Pakistani jails since then.

He was convicted of staging four bombings in Lahore and Multan in 1990 that killed at least 14 people.

"I have no words to thank President Zardari. I wish him the best for this historic decision. He has given a message of peace and love to the entire world with this decision. 'Thank you' is too small a word to say to him for this. I want to thank him from the core of my heart," Sarabjit's sister Dalbir Kaur had said Tuesday.

IANS

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