Munnawar Ali was among thousands of Pakistanis who burst into joy when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman announced plans to release over 2,000 Pakistani prisoners languishing in Saudi jails last February.
Two months on, Ali -- together with thousands of others -- is still awaiting fulfillment of the crown prince’s promise.
In fact, last week’s beheading of a Pakistani couple on charges of drug smuggling by Saudi authorities further worried him about the fate of his wife and a sister, who have been serving jail time in Jeddah.
The two were arrested at Jeddah airport in 2015 for reportedly carrying banned medicines, which Ali recalled had been packed in a box gifted to them by "unknown women" in northeastern Multan airport before the family boarded a plane for Saudi Arabia to perform Umrah, a ritual Islamic pilgrimage.
Drug traffickers often trick poor and illiterate Pakistanis in the name of free Umrah or Hajj, and conceal drugs or other banned items in their luggage. Many are caught in Saudi airports, unable to defend themselves due to the language barrier.
Dozens of Pakistanis have been beheaded on drug smuggling charges in Saudi Arabia in recent years.
The wife and the sister were sentenced to seven and 20 years in prison in 2016, though the punishments were pardoned in 2018 under a royal decree, claimed Ali, who runs a make-shift shop in an eastern district of Karachi claimed.
"I was over the moon when the Crown Prince announced that Pakistani prisoners would be released.
"I thought it would be a matter of a couple of days or weeks when I would see my wife and sister, but it’s been over two months, and we have no clue when will they be released," he told Anadolu Agency.
The two have been kept in a special cell in the Jeddah prison along with another 20-25 women who too have been pardoned in line with the royal decree, where they have the facility to telephone their families.
"I have just spoken to my wife. She asks me only one thing: When will we be released? Especially now that we have been pardoned," said an emotional Ali, father of five.
"We are stuck between fear and hope, especially after the recent beheading [of a Pakistani couple]," he said.
Abdul Sattar -- another resident of Karachi -- had a similar ordeal to share.
His wife, tempted by a so-called philanthropist to carry intoxicating tablets for money, was arrested at Jeddah airport and sentenced to 15 years in 2015. She was granted royal pardon last year and is awaiting deportation, Sattar claimed.
"We were so happy when he [bin Salman] made this announcement. I thought I and my kids would be seeing her soon, but we are still waiting," Sattar, a father of six children, told Anadolu Agency.
"I am still not hopeless. I am sure the Crown prince will soon fulfill his promise," maintained Sattar, three of whose children are terminally ill.
Another resident of Karachi, Safia Bibi, also hopes to see her husband sooner than later, following bin Salman’s announcement.
"He [my husband] is a cancer patient and has already completed his 8-year term. But he is still not being released," she told Anadolu Agency.
- Slow Progress
Desperate family members held a protest demonstration at the Karachi Press Club last Thursday to demand the release of their loved ones.
Bin Salman in February had announced that 2,107 Pakistani prisoners would be released from Saudi jails upon a "special request" made by Pakistani Premier Imran Khan.
Hours after the announcement, a batch of Pakistani prisoners were brought to Islamabad on a special Saudi plane, though these were reportedly outside of the pledge as they had already completed their jail terms.
According to local broadcaster, Samma News, some 125 Pakistani prisoners have been released so far after the landmark announcement.
Raja Ali Ijaz, Pakistan’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia told local broadcaster GNN that he was in contact with Saudi authorities with regards to the issue.
"Insha Allah [God willing], the issue will soon be resolved," he said.
Ijaz admitted he had yet to receive the list of prisoners to be released from Saudi authorities.
"I don’t think that the death-row prisoners will be released. Only those prisoners involved in minor crimes will be released," he added.
Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mohammad Faisal declined comment despite repeated requests. The Saudi Embassy in Islamabad too could not be reached for comment.
Pakistan’s relationship with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states are mainly based on economic ties, with huge remittances - sent every year by expatriate Pakistanis working in Saudi Arabia as well as in other Gulf states.
Saudi Arabia, which alone hosts 1.9 million Pakistanis, sends the most remittances to Pakistan -- over $4.5 billion annually, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
The two sides inked several trade and investment deals worth $20 billion in February.
© Copyright Andolu Ajansi