IAF Wing Commander
Abhinandan Varthaman

By – Praveen Ranjan 

The capture and detainment of Indian Air Force (IAF) Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman by Pakistan on Wednesday is being perceived as a turning point in the rising hostilities between the neighbours in the aftermath of the Pulwama terror attack in February. Varthaman was captured by Pakistani troops and treated as a ‘peacetime’ prisoner of war.

Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Raveesh Kumar on Wednesday had briefed the media about Varthaman, who at that point was a “pilot missing in action”, whose MiG 21 Bison had been shot and fallen in Pakistani territory following an aerial engagement with aircraft of the Pakistan Air Force after they violated Indian airspace over Jammu and Kashmir’s Rajouri district.

Pakistan claimed that their troops had arrested the IAF pilot, whose identity was later confirmed, as the Indian public clamoured for Varthaman to be brought back. The hashtag #BringBackAbhinandan became a top trend on Twitter, with citizens urging the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led government to bring the pilot back home to safety. Many also encouraged Pakistan to extend to him relevant protections under the Geneva Convention.

On Thursday, as  “Pakistan had no other option but to release the warrior ,Thanks to the government for building up the pressure”, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that Varthaman would be released on Friday. The international community also called for de-escalation of tensions in the region, and back home, the Geneva Conventions – which dictates the rules in dealing with a ‘prisoner of war’ – was evoked to ensure Varthaman’s smooth return.

Who is a prisoner of war?

The status of ‘prisoner of war’ can apply to a member of the armed forces who is in the custody of the adversary during an international armed conflict. The treatment of prisoners of war, or POWs, is dictated by Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which were laid down in 1929 and modified after World War II. The convention states that a POW must be handed back to the native country and repatriated after the hostile situation is over.

What are the Geneva Conventions?

Officially called the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the agreement is a set of international treaties put in place to ensure that states engaged in conflict maintain the human rights of the non-combatants like civilians and medical personnel. However, combatants who are not actively involved in warfare like POWs or wounded personnel, are also covered under the conventions. All member countries of the United Nations are signatories to the Geneva Conventions.

There are four conventions, of which the third deals with the conduct with a POW. The provisions apply in peacetime situations along with declared wars, and also in conflict situations which are not declared as war by the parties. Therefore, Varthaman has rights as a POW under the Geneva Conventions.

What are the rights of POW under the Geneva Conventions?

The Third Convention, with 143 articles, deal with everything to do with the prisoner, “including the place of internment, religious needs, recreation, financial resources, the kinds of work that captors can make PoWs do, the treatment of captured officers, and the repatriation of prisoners”, according to a report by The Indian Express.

Article 13 of the convention says, “Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power (state) causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.

“In particular, no prisoner of war may be subjected to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are not justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the prisoner concerned and carried out in his interest. Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity. Measures of reprisal against prisoners of war are prohibited.”

The POW also cannot be prosecuted for participating in war-time activities. “Their detention is not a form of punishment, but only aims to prevent further participation in the conflict. They must be released and repatriated without delay after the end of hostilities,” the conventions state. The international treaties also state that a POW cannot be forces to give information of any kind under “physical or mental torture, nor any other form of coercion”.

India also objected to the circulation of a “vulgar” video clip of Varthaman, released by the Pakistan government. “India also strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return.”

“Prisoners of war who, owing to their physical or mental condition, are unable to state their identity, must be handed over for medical treatment. It also states that all personal effects except for military equipment and military documents must remain with the POW. The POW must always have identity documents on his or her person,” a report by The News Minute explained, adding, “POWs must be evacuated to a site far away from the site of capture and the evacuation must be done in a humane way.”

Praveen Ranjan

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