Monday, November 30, 2015


A convicted person may well be innocent in Pakistan

As we await the ultimate fate of Abdul Basit, a paralysed man, to know whether or not he is to be hanged, the question arises: Should the death punishment exist, most particularly in Pakistan?
Abdul Basit was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 2009. While in prison he contracted tubercular meningitis and lost the use of both legs due to a lack of proper medical attention and care. Such neglect is common in prisons in Pakistan. A report put together by the organisation Death Penalty Worldwide says, ‘Prison doctors (in Pakistan) are incompetent and uninterested state employees, and prisoners are given severely substandard care.’
Abdul Basit’s execution has been delayed a couple of times, once only minutes before he was to be hanged because it was raining at the time of execution, and again just this month when the President of Pakistan ordered a two-month delay in execution only a few hours before the event.
Another prisoner Shafqat Hussain was hanged in Karachi in August this year. He had been in prison since the age of fourteen, a minor convicted of murdering another minor. Hussain confessed to the crime but maintained that the confession was tortured out of him. An excerpt from a statement made by him earlier this year describes what it was like to be on death row: ‘I have been told I am going to be executed seven times. The first time was in 2013. I am alone in my cell now. Both my cellmates were hanged. I had shared a cell with them for six or seven years. I cannot even begin to explain what I went through when they were executed because I myself was scheduled to be executed the next day.’
Hussain was hanged just a few days after this statement was recorded. At the time of his death he was just twenty four. He had been in prison for ten years.
These are only two examples but together they serve to highlight several things about the death punishment in Pakistan: That prisoners suffer neglect and their physical condition makes little difference to their sentence as in the case of Abdul Basit whose execution has only been postponed now, not commuted. It highlights the fact that although the law does not allow the death sentence for minors, this law is broken as in the case of Shafqat Hussain. Overall it highlights the fact that the adage ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ holds little meaning in Pakistan. Both these men have been imprisoned for several years and have had their date of execution pushed around arbitrarily, thereby suffering the torture of everything but execution itself several times over.
Not that living on death row is much better, physically speaking. That report put together by Death Penalty Worldwide also describes conditions inside a typical death cell in Pakistan: ‘The norm is for seven prisoners to be confined in one death cell, which also contains the prisoners’ toilet. In some cells, inmates must take turns sleeping for want of space to lie down. Families are allowed to bring food for loved ones but prison officials often withhold food intended for prisoners, and prisoners are given watered-down rations. Mentally ill prisoners are often kept together in one cell. In one jail in Punjab, there are forty of them and they all have one arm chained to the wall. Only one hand is free. They are kept like this all day. In some prisons the gallows can be seen by the prisoners from their death cells.’
The report notes that as always, wealthy people are able to buy better conditions, even in prison, but almost all death row inmates are “extremely poor and helpless”.
The report goes on to say that ‘some officials abuse prisoners in custody. Female prisoners may be subjected to abuse including custodial rape. Condemned prisoners can walk outside for only about an hour a day, are subjected to lengthy periods of shackling—a practice the UN has concluded as torture — may be excluded from social or recreational activities, and have severely restricted visitation rights. A condemned prisoner may face impending death while under these conditions for more than 10 years.’
The fact is that even outside of prison living conditions in Pakistan are good only for the select few. For prisoners in daily expectation of death, they are pitiful. No human deserves to live this way, not even convicted murderers for whom civil and religious norms both prescribe justice and humane treatment, and neither justice nor humanity may be found in any of these cases. It is time we re-examined the very existence of the death penalty everywhere but most particularly in Pakistan where even more than in other places a person convicted of murder may well be innocent.
Persons who would otherwise be awarded the death penalty should be sentenced to life in confinement without a chance of parole, yes. But if there is any doubt as to their guilt they should not receive the death punishment and their case should be investigated immediately rather than being allowed to drag on for years. Living conditions in prison should be humane. Unfortunately, practical concerns make it necessary to consider finances when evaluating death vs life under confinement. Feeding and housing a person with any semblance of humanity is difficult to afford particularly for a poor country like Pakistan. But with a little ingenuity and some organisation an alternative can be managed tailored to the particular requirements of this country. Long term prisoners could perhaps be confined in a place similar to a commune where they could grow their own food and work at a cottage industry to pay for their keep.
Citizens of any country and all humans everywhere have rights in life, and in death, as well as when they are under sentence of death. We have been instructed in this in the best of ways: ‘Be just, for this is closest to righteousness….’ (Quran 5:8)

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