Amid a domestic and international outcry, the Pakistani government has granted a stay of execution to death row prisoner Shafqat Hussain in order to investigate evidence that he was 14 when he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.
The move comes as activists appeal for a full review of more than 8,000 death row cases, while raising concerns that hundreds of juveniles may be facing execution as a consequence of a "broken" criminal justice system.
On Wednesday, a Pakistani minister announced that Hussain's execution — scheduled for Thursday — would be delayed for 72 hours to enable an inquiry.
Sources inside Karachi Central Jail told VICE News that a committee from the interior ministry spent three hours interviewing Hussain on Thursday morning.
Hussain, who has a learning disability, was convicted over the kidnapping and murder of a child in 2004. He confessed at the time but maintains that he did so after nine days of torture, and has since then continually protested his innocence. His family has since produced a birth certificate proving that he was 14 at the time of his conviction; however the authorities have until now refused to consider their complaint, they say.
An interior ministry official — who spoke to VICE News on condition of anonymity — said that the only mandate the investigatory committee has been given is to examine the controversy around Hussain's age. He added that the interior ministry has no lawful authority to launch a re-inquiry into the charges against Hussain.
Hussain's elder brother, Gul Zaman, told VICE News that he was visiting him in prison on Thursday morning when the jail superintendent interrupted their meeting, saying that a high-level committee had arrived at the prison for an interview.
Zaman said that after he left the jail he "received a phone call from the interior ministry, in which they asked me about my family members — brothers, sisters, father and mother's date of birth."
Zaman said that he and another brother Abdubal Hameed had spent time with Hussain on Wednesday night. During their visit that evening — which they then believed was their last — Hussain composed his last will and testament "in which he wrote that he is innocent, that they want to hang me for a crime which I had not committed."
At the time, Hussain was wearing white, in anticipation of his execution, Zaman said, adding that "Allah helped and his execution was postponed for a few hours."
He added that he is hopeful that "if the government conducts an inquiry it will prove that Shafqat Hussain is innocent and he will not be hanged."
Another of Hussain's brothers, Manzore Hussain, told VICE News that while he is happy at the stay of execution, "my demand is justice. I beg to all who are rulers, leaders, please give us justice." He added: "We are hopeful that our innocent brother will not hang."
Samara, Hussain's sister, spoke to VICE News on the phone from the family home near Muzaffarabad. "I was losing hope and preparing for the dead body and funeral prayers of my brother," she said," but Allah helped us and he is safe now."
She added: "I hope that he will be released soon and will be with us in the coming days."
Mirza Shahzad Akbar, a senior lawyer and human rights activist from the Rights Advocacy group, told VICE News that "the law is very clear that a juvenile can't be hanged." He said that Hussein had not been made aware of the law and the police and prosecution had always submitted his age as an adult. Unable to afford a lawyer, he was given an ineffective government-funded defender who never raised the issue during his trial or appeals.
Hussein was also tried in an anti-terrorism court, in which many rights are suspended, such as the right of the defendant to be present during the trial.
Akbar said that the government now has to reach a conclusion about Hussain's age at the time of conviction. There are two options for them in deciding this: the first is to accept the provided birth certificate for Hussain; the second is to order a DNA test.
"If Shafqat Hussain is proven to be a juvenile then his punishment will be changed into a life sentence; if not, then he will be hanged."
Senior lawyer and former judge Syed Yasir Shabir told VICE News that the postponement was necessary, because Pakistani law is very transparent on how juveniles should be dealt with. It is "crystal clear that capital punishment can't be inflicted on a juvenile," he said.
Shahab Siddiqui, a spokesperson for non-profit human rights law firm Justice Project Pakistan, a group that has worked diligently on Hussain's case, said that all the requisite documents had now been provided to the interior ministry and are now hopeful that the inquiry will be free and fair. He added: "When the inquiry is done then we will look at the other options, there is still time while we are waiting for the inquiry result."
The Pakistani government granted the stay on Hussain's execution following a major outcry and international pressure. Protests over the case were held in Islamabad, Muzaffarabad, Azad Jammu and Kashmir. On Tuesday, Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told the Pakistani parliament that the "whole social media has been abuzz" about the case. "There is an accusation that there has been no inquiry but an inquiry has been carried out for the past two months," he said, adding that a lot of criticism needed to be leveled at those who failed to raise the issue of age in previous appeals.
The number of executions in the country has escalated in recent months. Twelve convicts were put to death on Tuesday, the largest number since the moratorium on executions was lifted following the Peshawar school massacre in December. There are currently more than 8,000 prisoners on death row in total. While the government said capital punishment would be confined to those convicted of "terrorism" offences in anti-terrorism courts, activists have said that as many as 88 percent of applicable cases have "no link to anything reasonably defined as terrorism."
A report released on Thursday by the Justice Project Pakistan and rights group Reprieve indicated that Hussain's conviction as a minor was not an isolated incident. They said that their research shows there has been a "systematic failure to accurately identify and document cases of children facing capital charges in Pakistan." Of the factors that have contributed to this issue, they note that the most common appears to be the "failure of legal counsel to raise the defense of juvenility at trial."
The report goes on to identify some of those currently on death row who are believed to have been convicted as minors.
These include Muhammad Amin, who was arrested in 1998 when he was 16, and convicted of murdering a man during a burglary. He is currently being held in Central Jail Rawalpindi in Punjab. His conviction for murder was overturned after intervention by the victim's family, but he is still facing a death sentence under the Anti-Terrorism Act because the killing caused "terror, (a) sense of fear, and insecurity in the people of (the) locality."
Another convict they mention, Qadeer Ahmad, was arrested in 2001 when he was 15. He was also convicted of murder in what Reprieve say was a tragic accident in which a gun went off and killed his nephew.
A 2007 report by FIDH and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan found that the law surrounding juveniles and the death penalty has been indefinite and inconsistent, and that prison authorities had admitted to being aware that there were some minors condemned to death. It also noted that widespread public support for the death penalty can put a considerable amount of pressure on local judges to apply it.
Many of the highlighted cases involve suspects who lack proper legal representation, have limited education, and are sometimes even illiterate. They are usually unaware of their legal rights. Many — like Hussain — come from impoverished backgrounds, and some come from villages where it is not unusual for a birth to go unregistered.
Hussain's execution has already been postponed twice. In December, he was given a "black warrant," suggesting an imminent hanging, but a stay of two months was later granted on the direction of the interior ministry.
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