In March this year, a court in the Sultanate of Oman acquitted Hasib (name changed to protect identity) of charges of embezzlement and ordered his release from jail. Five months later, the 38-year-old hailing from Kerala is still languishing in the largest central prison in that country. Till now, he has spent one year – eight months as an undertrial and four months after the verdict was delivered – in jail.
His wife Hannah (name changed to protect identity) had written to the Indian ambassador to Oman, Munu Mahawar, requesting him to facilitate her husband’s repatriation. The e-mail, sent on May 23, hinted about Hasib's failing mental health. "His mental health will be affected if he remains in the jail," she wrote.
The plea, however, did not elicit any reply, forcing Hannah to hit out at the embassy officials. "They didn't do anything to facilitate my husband’s repatriation. Five months have passed since the Oman court ordered his release. The repatriation would have happened by now had they issued travel documents to him," she said.
More than 50 Indian citizens are languishing in various jails in Oman after being exonerated or completed their prison term. All of them are waiting for the issuance of travel documents by the Indian mission even as COVID-19 infections are rising in Oman. The country will remain under lockdown from July 25 to August 8.
The embassy’s callous attitude has drawn flak from Indian social workers in Oman.
"The mission officials have not taken the issue seriously. Those in jails are being denied justice," said a social worker, who wished to remain anonymous.
Non-Resident Keralites Affairs (NORKA) Welfare Board member PM Jabir, who lives in Oman, has brought the issue to the attention of the Indian mission. “I have been getting a lot of distress calls from the prison inmates. Hope the embassy will act soon,” he said.
The Indian mission in Oman, however, denied the allegations.
"There was no delay on the part of the Indian embassy," Irshad Ahmad, First Secretary at the Indian Embassy in Oman, said in a statement issued to Onmanorama.
"Indian embassy is in touch with Omani authorities to facilitate the return of Indian prisoners. The embassy had earlier facilitated the return of several Indian prisoners from Oman to India," it stated.
Ahmad coordinates community welfare activities at the Indian embassy in Oman.
Tall promise, no numbers
Despite its tall promise, the embassy apparently does not possess data of Indians who have to be repatriated from various prisons in Oman, and the mission has conveniently ignored an Onmanorama query about their numbers.
However, social workers estimate that more than 50 Indians are waiting to be repatriated from Oman.
They pointed out that embassy officials would get the numbers only if they visited jails. “No official has visited the jail in Sohar so far. Many Indians are waiting for repatriation there,” said a social worker.
Sohar is a port city that lies 200km northwest of the country’s capital Muscat.
Arrested in Qatar, jailed in Oman
Hasib’s ordeal began when he arrived in Qatar on June 24, 2019, on a visit visa. He was arrested immediately and was handed over to Royal Oman Police two weeks later. Hasib came to know about the reason for his arrest only after reaching the prison at Sohar.
He had lived and worked in Oman with his family for two years from 2015. He returned to Kerala when his wife developed a few complications during her pregnancy. He could not return to work as the new-born baby too had some health issues. What led to Hasib’s arrest was his employer’s complaint that he had embezzled money before going to Kerala. The court exonerated him eight months after his arrest. He is currently housed at Oman’s main central prison at Sumayil, some 60km south of Muscat.
His wife said Hasib would break down whenever he calls her. “He is under severe depression. He calls me after borrowing calling cards from inmates from other countries. He told me recently that 20 other Indians are with him in the male section of the prison,” she said.
Hannah's revelations throw light on the violation of Indian government’s guidelines on the assistance to Indians jailed in foreign countries.
In a report tabled in the Rajya Sabha in 2018, the Indian government had stated that the Indian missions abroad would provide consular services and facilitate the repatriation of prisoners by issuing necessary travel documents. It stated the embassy officials would make regular visits to local jails and detention centres to ascertain the condition of Indian nationals and provide requisite help and support. “Missions and posts also maintain a local panel of lawyers where the Indian community is in sizeable numbers. Legal assistance is also available to Indian nationals in prisons abroad through the Indian Community Welfare Fund (ICWF)," the report stated.
Promises on paper
However, the relatives of the prison inmates vouch that the guidelines remain only on paper.
Saraswathy (name changed to protect identity), who hails from Kerala, recently told her husband Sadanandan (name changed to protect identity) that no one from the embassy visited her. "They have not even attended my call to check the status of my deportation. I would be happy if they answered my query," she said.
Saraswathy worked as a housemaid before being detained in December 2019 based on her employer’s complaint. The court had set her free in February 2020.
Sadanandan said the Indian embassy should have sent her in the Vande Bharat flights (India's repatriation mission to bring back people stranded abroad in the wake of COVID-19). “I am worried about her safety. With Oman bracing for another lockdown, I don’t know when she would return home,” he said.
He even approached Union Minister of State for External Affairs V Muralidharan with a request to repatriate his wife. "He has promised to look into the issue. But nothing has happened so far," he said.
Muraleedharan did not respond to Onmanorama's calls and text messages for his reaction.
More worried are the relatives of Sherin (name changed to protect identity) whose passport expired on July 15. Sherin was arrested in September 2019 and was released in March this year. “He has not contacted me since July 15. I don’t know how he will come back with an expired passport,” said his wife Julie (name changed to protect identity).
“I hope the Indian embassy officials would step in immediately and bring back all those hapless prisoners, including my husband, soon,” she said.
Social workers in Oman said the Indian embassy should ensure repatriation through Vande Bharat flights.
"The Indian embassy should take the initiative to repatriate the hapless persons from the prisons at the earliest," said a social worker.