Hundreds of Indians prisoners are languishing in Pakistani jails, while a similar number of Pakistanis are locked up in India.  The issue raises humanitarian concerns because in most cases those jailed are not prisoners of war, but rather were arrested on charges of espionage after wandering across the border.  Nilanjana Bhowmick reports from Kolkata.

Of the hundreds of Indians imprisoned in Pakistan, Sarabjit Singh is perhaps the most prominent.  He faces a death sentence after appeals for a pardon to Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, have gone unanswered.  Islamabad says Singh was an Indian spy responsible for bombings in Pakistan's Punjab province in 1990.

One of Singh's former cellmates is Mehboob Ilahi, who the Pakistanis also accused of being a spy.  Ilahi says he crossed the border looking for work, was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment, but held for an additional five years before being freed in 1996.  During that time, he says, he was tortured.

He says Pakistanis taunted him that while Hindus burn their bodies after death, they would burn him while he is alive.  He says he suffered burns over one-fourth of his body and doctors told him he probably would not survive.

Ilahi says Singh told him he was a farmer who lived near the border, had a fight with his wife, drank too much alcohol and mistakenly wandered into Pakistan.

Once Ilahi was freed, he returned to India and established Sangharsh a foundation to provide support for Singh and all the other Indian prisoners abroad.

Ilahi says he has appealed to the United Nations to have its representatives accompany him to Pakistan so the situation of the imprisoned Indians there can be exposed.

South Asia has few organizations concerned with the rights of prisoners.  One though is the Ansar Burney Trust.

Pakistani lawyer and prominent human-rights advocate Ansar Burney has been in jail there several times.  He says of the 700 Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails and 400 Indians in Pakistani detention, some have been languishing for decades.

"I met so many prisoners on the borders," he said.  "Some of them were mentally ill.  They were treated as animals or worse than animals and they are treating them as enemies."

Many are accused of being spies, but Burney says he believes most of the prisoners are guilty of nothing more than crossing borders without permission.

"Some of them are fishermen," he added.  "In my opinion they are innocents because they do not know which fish is from which country, because fishes have no nationality.  And they are poor people.  Both the countries should immediately get them out from their prisons and send them back to their respective countries."

Former British intelligence officer Brian Cloughley, now a consultant on South Asian political and military affairs, says the situation of distrust results from the three major wars between India and Pakistan since Partition. 

"These wars did not do anything to get the people to live more amicably together," he said.

But Cloughley is optimistic that the common history of the two countries, which were both part of British-colonial India, will eventually lead to a mending of relations.

"There is a great deal of cultural similarity in the subcontinent," he added.  "Why not use that to try to get the peoples of the subcontinent together.  The idea is to get trust and confidence then relations can only but improve."

A recent visit by Burney to India is being hailed as a sign that after decades of animosity the course of relations can change and help improve conditions for the cross-border prisoners.