How Colombo released the fishermen

Salman-Khan-body-PicturesActor Salman Khan appears to have, perhaps unknowingly, played an indirect role in the release of the five Indian fishermen on death row in Sri Lanka, The Hinduhas learnt.

His friend, journalist Rajat Sharma, was in Colombo to invite President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his son Namal Rajapaksa for the wedding of Arpita Khan, the actor’s sister. During the visit Mr. Sharma is said to have raised the issue of the fishermen’s release.

Sri Lanka released the fishermen on Wednesday and spared them of any further jail term in India, signalling a huge diplomatic victory for New Delhi. Around 10 p.m. on Thursday Mr. Modi, who had just returned from his three-nation tour, telephoned President Rajapaksa to personally thank him for the gesture, a top source said. The fishermen, who were released by President Rajapaksa, had reached New Delhi earlier that evening.

New Delhi seems to have made its best efforts through multiple channels, possibly including actor Salman Khan’s link to Namal Rajapaksa, who on Friday tweeted a photograph with the actor and his sister. “It was lovely catching up with @BeingSalmanKhan ahead of the 2nd wedding reception,” Namal Rajapaksa said in a tweet wishing the bride.

Mr. Sharma, known well to Salman Khan and also a friend of the Prime Minister, heads India TV and had interviewed Mr. Modi ahead of the Indian elections in May. Mr. Sharma was with Mr. Modi when Mr. Rajapaksa called the Prime Minister on November 9 to discuss the possibility of releasing the fishermen, a top source said, referring to Mr. Sharma as a “long-time friend of the PM.”

FISHERMEN_2217435gEver since the Colombo High Court sentenced the five fishermen to death on October 30 in a case of alleged drug trafficking — along with three Sri Lankan fishermen whose sentence stands till date — the Indian Foreign Ministry explored every possible option, from diplomatic negotiations at the highest levels to legal channels.

Senior journalist and BJP national spokesperson M.J. Akbar was in Colombo recently and called on Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, the President’s brother.

Earlier, BJP leader Subramanian Swamy had pointed to the 2010 agreement between India and Sri Lanka, raising the issue of a possible transfer of prisoners, both these suggesting that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) may have simultaneously engaged in the matter.

New Delhi, however, was emphatically pushing for a full pardon as it was not prepared to face a situation of having the fishermen lodged in an Indian prison.

While a prison transfer may have been an appealing option to Mr. Rajapaksa, who faces presidential elections in January, he released the five fishermen, that too at a time when sections have been severely criticising his government for its inability to curb drug peddling. “He did it only because he greatly values the relationship with India,” a top source in Colombo said.

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