Pakistan's midnight U-turn on the release of Sarabjit Singh, suspected to have been done under pressure from its powerful military-ISI establishment, has not gone down well with India even as New Delhi Wednesday renewed its pitch for the death row prisoner's release and awaited clarity on the issue.
Family members and friends of Sarabjit Singh, who were Tuesday night jubilant when the news broke about Pakistan planning to release him, were "disappointed and shattered" at the midnight twist of events as Islamabad clarified that it was Surjeet Singh, another prisoner in Pakistani custody, who was being released.
Pakistan's U-turn on release of Sarabjit, a long-standing Indian request, has not gone down well with India and has cast a shadow over the talks between Foreign Secretary Ranjan Mathai and his Pakistani counterpart Jalil Abbas Jilani in New Delhi July 4-5.
"I have seen media reports about the impending release from imprisonment in Pakistan of Surjeet Singh, son of Sucha Singh. I welcome this decision and further renew our request to the president of Pakistan to release Sarabjit Singh," External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told reporters here.
Sarabjit has been in Pakistan's custody for well over two decades and faces a death sentence for his alleged complicity in a string of blasts in the Punjab province cities of Lahore and Multan in 1990.
Krishna's statement came after Pakistan did an inexplicable volte face about releasing Sarabjit Singh Tuesday night.
On June 26, the Pakistani media carried reports of Sarabjit getting a presidential pardon. However, Islamabad clarified around midnight that it was not Sarabjit but Surjeet Singh, his fellow inmate at Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore, who would be released.
Admitting confusion over the issue, Krishna said he has also seen media reports and stressed that India was awaiting official communication from the Pakistan government and a report from the Indian High Commission in Islamabad on this issue.
Krishna, however, renewed request to the Pakistan government to take a lenient and humanitarian view and also release Sarabjit.
"As you are aware, the government of India has consistently urged the government of Pakistan, on several occasions, to take a sympathetic and humanitarian view in the case of Sarabjit Singh," he said.
"I also appeal to the government of Pakistan to release all Indian nationals who have completed their prison terms and request the release of all other Indians who are serving jail sentences in Pakistani prisons for petty crimes," Krishna said.
Senior ministers also backed Krishna in requesting Sarabjit's release on humanitarian grounds.
Pakistan should look at the case of the death row prisoner Sarabjit Singh sensitively and compassionately, Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni said in Thiruvananthapuram.
Pakistan claims that Sarabjit, who is known as Manjit Singh there, was involved in staging four blasts in Lahore and Multan in 1990, which claimed 14 lives. His family however, maintains that Sarabjit, a resident of border town of Bhikhiwind, had strayed across the border in an inebriated state in August 1990.
Surjeet, who has been in Pakistani custody for over 30 years, was captured near the India-Pakistan border on charges of spying during Zia-ul-Haq's tenure and was on the death row too, but his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 1989.
"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.
While the reasons for Pakistan's flip-flop are not clear, informed sources pointed out that Pakistan's powerful military establishment may have vetoed the government's decision.
Home Minister P. Chidambaram said it was difficult to figure out how and what happened.
The Bharatiya Janata Party asked the government to explain how Krishna could announce that Pakistan would release Sarabjit Singh but the name was later changed to Surjeet Singh.
The party's senior leader Yashwant Sinha accused the Pakistan government of buckling under the pressure from some terrorist organisations.
The Pakistani media has termed the flip-flop as an "international embarrassment" for the Pakistan government.