With the new government planning to resume executions, human rights activists warn of potential carnage in Pakistani prisons.
For the last fifteen years, Nadeem Hassan* has been incarcerated in Pakistani prisons, fighting a legal battle to assert his innocence and overturn his death sentence.
In the 1990s, on the outskirts of Lahore, Nadeem killed two people in what he claims was an accident, while trying to disperse an angry mob that had surrounded his family following an argument. Nadeem claimed that there were armed people in the crowd and pleaded self-defense. Nonetheless, he was arrested and tried for murder.
Coming from a lower middle-class family, Nadeem could not afford to hire a private lawyer and was given a state-appointed legal counsel who he claims asked him for bribes. Unable to give his lawyer any money, he was poorly defended and ended up on death row. Since then, he has been pursuing the appeal process, without success.
But it is not the slow and corrupt judicial process that haunts him the most.
“The authorities have issued nineteen death warrants, and informed my family to come meet me for the last time as many times,” Hassan recently told The Diplomat.
“At least three to four times, I was informed about my hanging just twenty four hours before it was to take place,” adds Hassan.
Initially his family was able to get a stay of execution through the courts, either through appeals to higher courts or an ongoing out-of-court settlement negotiation that has since failed. Later, mercy petitions to the president of Pakistan kept the executioner at bay.
For the last five years, however, Hassan has been kept alive by a moratorium on executions that was announced by the last government formed under Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
In 2008, in one of his first speeches after taking office, former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called for converting all death penalties into life sentences.
Legislation in this regard was never introduced but the outgoing president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, used his constitutional powers to institute a moratorium on all executions, stating that since the government was formulating legislation, the hangings needed to be put on hold.
But the PPP lost power in general elections this May, and Nawaz Sharif, who heads his own faction in the Pakistan Muslim League, emerged victorious. Now prime minister, Sharif has shown no interest in continuing the moratorium.
Originally, executions in Pakistan were to resume end of August, but on August 18, following threats from the Taliban of attacks on elected officials if the government were to execute any Taliban operatives on death row, the government announced that it would continue the stay on executions until President Asif Ali Zardari returned from abroad. Zardari had previously called for a meeting with Sharif over the issue of executing death row prisoners, which officials say prompted the prime minister’s office to issue a stay.
However Zardari's term in office ends on September 6, leaving the fate of the inmates solely in the hands of the Nawaz government, which has shown no signs of changing its stance on resuming the hangings.
“For five years, we were under the impression that we will not be executed anymore since the former Prime Minister had publicly stated so, and it gave all of us a lot of hope but now with that government gone, and the announcement to resume hangings, it has emotionally drained me and all other death row inmates,” says Hassan.
Activists Plead For Mercy
Hassan’s lawyer, who runs a non-profit law firm that tackles human rights cases, says the government plans to hang four hundred prisoners including her client, by the end of this year.
“There is going to be a bloodbath in Pakistani jails in the coming months because the government believes in this narrative that somehow executions can solve the prevailing terrorism issue in the country. But most death row prisoners are not even terrorists,” explains the lawyer.
An organization called the Justice Project Pakistan is fighting the resumption of the death penalty in Pakistan, and calls on the country’s inefficient judicial and policing system needs to improve first before carrying out that most extreme of punishments.
A representative of the organization told The Diplomat, “In a country where there is so much corruption in the legal process, death penalties cannot be on merit. Moreover, many of the crimes that receive death sentences do not meet international standards; rather, the courts feel that they are doing a social service by cleansing society of elements they believe are evil, against whom however there is in fact very weak evidence of any wrongdoing.”
The representative adds that at the time of Pakistan’s independence, only two crimes attracted the death penalty. “Now there are around 27. And some of them are as benign as cyber crimes and blasphemy. This has meant an incredibly high number of death sentences being handed down.”
In fact, Pakistan is among the world’s leaders in the handing down of death penalties. According to independent estimates, there are more than 8000 prisoners on death row, and international human rights bodies like the Amnesty International have appealed to the Pakistani government to keep the moratorium in place.
The Hangman And The Gallows
But the government has shown no signs of relenting, which means death row prisoners must once again contemplate the gallows, including those in Lahore.
For the last ten years, Sabir Masih has been the hangman in Lahore. He anticipates that he will be getting busy again soon.
“There was a gap of five years since the president had suspended the hangings. I would go to work and basically do nothing. But now we are expecting around four to five hangings a day to take place since there are so many death row prisoners,” says Masih in an interview conducted in a graveyard near his house, where he and his friends hang out after work.
It may seem ironic that Masih—a third-generation executioner—chooses to be surrounded by death, even when he is unwinding. But he insists he is not seeking comfort. “I grew up witnessing hangings so I have no fear. My uncle used to take me to the jail from a very young age.”
Masih explains how an execution takes place: “The prisoner is brought in from his cell usually very early in the morning around dawn. When he gets to the gallows, he is handed over to me. I tie his hands first and then place a hood over his head. Then I put the noose around his neck and tighten the rope. Finally, I tell him to pray but not out loud – only in his heart. Then I pull the lever.”
Masih says not much goes on in his head when carrying out the execution. “The first time it was difficult but now I have hanged more than 200 prisoners so I am pretty comfortable. Moreover, I have nothing personal against the person. There is no enmity or anything so I do not feel anything. I am just carrying out orders of the jail authorities.”
One of those orders is likely to be for the hanging of Nadeem Hassan. Nonetheless, Hassan's family is trying their best to save him. His daughters recently lost their mother to cancer, and desperately do not wish to lose another parent.
“We cannot do much but plead to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to have mercy on our father,” says the eldest daughter, who wishes not to be identified. “They gave us hope that he will stay alive even if in prison, and that is what many other children thought too. Now hearing the new orders, we pray that everyone who is innocent like our father is pardoned by the government,” she adds.
Taha Siddiqui is an investigative journalist working with various local and international media outlets focusing on terrorism, politics and minority issues in the country. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui
*Not his real name. Certain other identifying information has been altered.