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Pakistan’s Death Row Prisoners Face Broad 'Terrorism' Charges, Harrowing Conditions, and a Crumbling Justice System

Following the Peshawar massacre, Pakistan rushed to lift a moratorium on the death penalty, leading to many concerns for rights groups and the thousands languishing behind bars.

by Sarah Munir
Feb 24 2015, 12:20pm

Photo by Anjum Naveed/AP

A lot has changed in Pakistan since the barbaric December 16 attack that targeted an army-run school in Peshawar and claimed 141 lives, most of them children. One of the most immediate consequences of the heinous incident was Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifting the 2008 moratorium on executions, just one day later, for "terrorism related cases."

However, there was a glaring problem with that decision, as pointed out by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a Lahore-based rights organization. Not only does Pakistan have one of the largest death row populations globally — then totaling 8,526 — but more than one in 10 of every death row prisoner was tried as a "terrorist." 

Sarah Belal, executive director at JPP, told VICE News that "using the death penalty as a form of punishment runs the risk of taking too many innocent lives," especially given the multiple loopholes in Pakistan's justice system, such as "a corrupt and ineffective police, an under-trained and under-funded prosecution department, the rampant use of torture by the police to extort confessions, and an under-trained lower judiciary."

'I would think of banging my head against the wall and ending my life.'

In a report titled Terror on Death Row, the group expressed concern over the vague and overly broad definition of terrorism used under the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1997 (ATA). Zohra Yusuf, chairperson for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, told VICE News that this legislation, which was introduced specifically to deal with terrorism cases and ensure speedy trials, had fallen victim to the same shortcomings as regular courts, such as delays and poor conviction rates. "The problem is that successive governments, instead of strengthening existing institutions, have responded to crises by introducing new legislation such as the Pakistan Protection Ordinance and now military courts," said Yusuf.

JPP's report further cites that the ATA was being greatly and inappropriately overused, evident from more than 17,000 pending terrorism cases as of July 2014. According to Amnesty International, Pakistan also led the number of death penalty convictions globally in 2013, with 226 people being sentenced to death, and defendants charged with ordinary crimes, such as robbery or kidnapping, were tried as terrorists without any justification. Not only were their basic rights violated but they were also handed indiscriminate, harsh punishments that had no meaningful impact on combating terrorism.

Why the Pakistani Taliban massacred 132 children at a school in Peshawar. Read more here.

Shafqat Hussain, 25, is one of the victims caught in the midst of the country's knee-jerk attempt at mitigating terrorism. An anti-terrorism court sentenced Hussain to death in November 2004 at the age of 14 for allegedly kidnapping and murdering a child. According to JPP, the conviction came on the basis of a single piece of evidence: A confession extracted after nine days of beating and torture. "When the trial court passed the sentence, I was devastated. I remember having a terrible headache for days," Hussain told VICE News through his lawyer. "I would think of banging my head against the wall and ending my life."

Belal elaborated that Pakistan's death row is a "particularly harrowing place," where six to eight prisoners are stuffed in a single cell originally made for two, and remain locked up 23 hours a day. Moreover, the inmates have to take turns to lie down and are made to use the bathroom in front of each other. This inhumane treatment results in many of them suffering from acute anxiety, depression, and stress associated with the trauma of confinement. Other prisoners develop more serious conditions, such as schizophrenia and mood disorders with psychotic features.

'Everyone, including terrorists, has a right to defense and to a fair trial.'

Hussain was slated for execution in early January 2015 and his family was instructed by authorities at Karachi's Central Prison to pay their final visit. A few days before the hanging, however, federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced that the government was going to halt the execution and announced an inquiry into the concerns raised by human rights groups regarding Hussain's conviction. "When the superintendent came to me to give me the news, I couldn't believe him," recalled Hussain. "When he told me, I sat down on the floor and cried in relief."

While Hussain got lucky due to the international attention his case received, there are many others who await justice but might not be as fortunate. "In the wake of the Peshawar attack, there is a palpable shift in the way the judiciary sees itself and its role in fighting the 'war on terror' in Pakistan," said Belal. 

The judiciary, which currently faces a state narrative that attributes a considerable part of the blame to it for failing to "convict terrorists," now allows little room for any last-minute appeals or legal challenges for individuals sentenced to death for terrorism. For example, within 24 hours of the Peshawar attack, the state, in collusion with the judiciary, revised the existing ruling that gives a window of at least 14 days before the issuance of a death warrant and the date of execution. It was reduced to seven days in the provinces of Sindh and Punjab.

Pakistani Taliban carry out deadly suicide attack at police headquarters in Lahore. Read more here.

Human rights groups, however, continue to oppose the use of the death penalty as a solution to Pakistan's terrorism problem. "In a country where prosecution and investigation are weak and confessions obtained under torture, even convicted terrorists should not be given the death sentence," said Yusuf. "Everyone, including terrorists, has a right to defense and to a fair trial. The appeals process has to be expedited so that the [existing inmates] don't continue to languish in prisons." 

If that happens, convicts like Aftab Bahadur, who has been in prison for the past 23 years on charges of murder, might get a glimpse of the world outside once again. "I can recall very little from the world outside. Everything seems like a blur," Bahadur told VICE News through his lawyer. "But I want to tell the Pakistani government is that it has been 23 years since I have been in prison. I am innocent. At least give me a chance."

Follow Sarah Munir on Twitter: @sarahmunir1