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Convicted spy's prison death raises tension between nuclear-armed rivals

Raminder Pal Singh / EPA

School children in Amritsar, India, pay tributes on Thursday to Sarabjit Singh, who died after being beaten in a Pakistani prison. Singh was convicted in Pakistan of spying and involvement in 1990 bomb attacks that killed 14 people. His family has always maintained his innocence.

Alive, he was a spy in purgatory on death row – neither executed by his Pakistani captors nor released to return home to India.

In death, Sarabjit Singh, 49, has become the source of a tense verbal battle between South Asia's nuclear-armed rivals.

After serving 22 years in a Pakistani jail for a confession-backed conviction for espionage and involvement in bombings in 1990 that killed 14 Pakistanis, Sarabjit Singh was beaten into a comatose state by two fellow inmates on April 26, officials said.

In the early hours of Thursday, after a week on life support, he died of cardiac arrest.

While the coma lasted, Pakistan allowed access to Singh that was unprecedented for an Indian prisoner. There were visits by his family and Indian diplomats and officials.

It seemed that if he lived, he would become a symbol of cooperation between New Delhi and Islamabad.

But after his death, the normally tense relationship between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan plummeted even further.

Indian opposition leaders and conservative media demanded an immediate downgrading of relations with Pakistan. Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid appeared on television, bluntly saying ties with Pakistan "may be affected."

K.M. Chaudary / AP

Pakistani hospital staffers transfer the body of former Indian prisoner Sarabjit Singh after an autopsy in Lahore on Thursday.Singh's death raised tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad.

Indian media, opposition leaders, and even government officials have accused Pakistan of not being a responsible custodian. Singh's family has long said that he was neither a spy nor a terrorist, arguing that he was an innocent farmer and that he must have accidentally entered Pakistan while intoxicated.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who is not related to the deceased, issued a strongly worded statement about the "barbaric and murderous" attack against Singh and said Pakistan never seriously considered the convicted spy's pleas for mercy.

There is angry rhetoric from Pakistanis, too, with many people on the country's social and conventional media networks saying Singh's confessed involvement in actions that killed Pakistanis is reason enough to justify his untimely death.

The Pakistan Foreign Office and media have responded with carefully worded statements and analysis that reinforce Islamabad's message: that Mr. Singh "was being provided the best treatment available and the medical staff … had been working round the clock since his hospitalization to save his life."

Also emphasized by the Foreign Office through various media was the fact that there were no violent incidents reported against Singh during more than two decades of incarceration and that Pakistanis had cooperated with the Indian government and given it high-level access to the investigation and the interrogation of the two men accused of attacking Singh.

Cooler heads may be prevailing.

Out of the spotlight, the Pakistanis and Indians are cooperating, and after the initial bout of highly emotive statements, both countries appear to be following the "less is more" technique of back-door diplomacy.

Islamabad has suspended jail officials and appointed judicial, medical and investigative commissions to probe the exact cause of Singh’s death. 

And now it is transferring Singh’s body to the Indian embassy, which has arranged a special flight for its return.


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