For the first time since Sri Lanka changed the procedure to deal with arrested Indian fishermen, 34 of them have pleaded guilty in a Sri Lankan court, of transgressing into the waters of the island nation. After 36 days in custody, a court in Point Pedro has ordered their release, as the fishermen pleaded guilty.
In the past two months, the Sri Lankan navy apprehended a large number of Indian fishermen. The Lankan authorities changed their method of custody and release from catch-release to a quasi-judicial process, wherein the fishermen must appear before a magistrate.
This had led to a lot of disquiet in Tamil Nadu political circles, with Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa writing to the Prime Minister to employ “coercive diplomacy” against Sri Lanka.
According to sources, 34 Indian fishermen, who appeared before the magistrate at Pedro Point court, pleaded guilty. They had been arrested by Lankan navy on July 31 and had since been lodged in Jaffna jail. Out of this batch of 34 fishermen, 21 were from Nagapattinam and 13 from Karaikkal, an enclave of Puducherry. They will soon go home, but five mechanised trawlers owned by them won’t be sent back.
There are still more batches of Indian fishermen left in Sri Lankan custody, which include 21 of them who have been languishing since July 6 and another 20 arrested on August 3. They are being tried at Mannar court and are lodged in Vavunia prison. A total of 106 Indian fishermen continue to remain in Sri Lankan custody.
India had been unhappy with Colombo over the unilateral decision to change the procedure to deal with Indian fishermen. This had led to Sri Lankan High Commissioner Prasad Kariyavasam to be summoned to South Block and handed a demarche on August 7 to expedite the release of fishermen on a humanitarian basis.
This issue was also raised by PM during his meeting with Sri Lankan Foreign Minister G L Peiris, when the latter came to invite him for the CHOGM in November.
On August 22, during a discussion in Rajya Sabha on Indian fishermen in Lankan custody, External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid informed that Sri Lanka had unilaterally changed the procedure from the earlier catch-release to a quasi-judicial procedure with appearances before a magistrate. As per the new method, if Indian fishermen plead guilty, they would be released immediately.
Khurshid had indicated that the fishermen had “rightly” refused to enter a guilty plea and therefore their custody had been extended. “Because if they plead guilty, it is not only a matter of concern to them, but also the impact of that information being used against India,” he had told.
Sources said the fishermen, eager to return home to their families, probably “succumbed” to pressure and pleaded guilty. But, their acceptance today could cause them to face an escalated punishment if they are caught again by SL navy. “It is their wish (to plead guilty), but they could face punitive penalties,” added sources. (Source: Indian Express)