"Are they still alive", the Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre expressing concern over the present status of 54 Indian Prisoners of War (POWs) languishing in Pakistan jails since 1971.
"We don't know," Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, appearing for External Affairs and Defence Ministries, told a bench of Justices T S Thakur and Kurian Joseph.
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"We presume that they are dead as Pakistan has been denying their presence in their prisons," he said.
The reply came when the bench asked, "First tell us, what is your understanding about their status? Are they dead or alive?"
The court then directed the government to pay the salary and retirement benefits to the dependents of the PoWs, to which the law officer said this was being done.
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Referring to the contents of an affidavit filed by the Defence Ministry, the Solicitor General said "as such, the exact status of these 54 missing defense personnel, believed to be in Pakistan jails, is not known. Amongst 54 such personnel, no service details are available with respect of three personnel of the Indian Army."
In response to a query as to why India cannot take the matter of the PoWs to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the SG said India has not submitted itself to the jurisdiction of ICJ if the matter relates to armed conflict between it and Pakistan.
Moreover, India had once successfully blocked such a bid by Pakistan, he said when the bench referred to the fact that once the water dispute between the two countries was taken to the ICJ.
The bench then adjourned hearing on three petitions raising the issue of POWs, brutality meted out to Saurav Kalia during Kargil War and beheading and mutilation of bodies of
two Indian soldiers in 2013 by Pakistani army, for a direction to the union government to move the International Court of Justice (ICJ).