Why capital punishment does not work in Pakistan
Updated 10 Oct, 2018 01:03am

The crime

A wazir once said to a king: “Seeing something with your own eyes or hearing it with your own ears does not necessarily mean it is true.”

The king was baffled.

“How can something be false if I have seen it with my own eyes or heard it with my own ears?” he said.

The wazir persisted. The king grew irate.

“If you fail to prove what you have just said, I will send you, your wife and your child to the gallows and hang you to death,” the king warned.

The wazir accepted the challenge.

Sometime later, the king went hunting.

Back at the palace, a servant made the king’s bed – as he did every day – and then, sensing that the king was away and no one was watching him, he lay in the royal bed and fell fast asleep. A little while later, the queen came into the room and, believing that the man in the bed was her husband, lay by his side.

When the king returned from his hunt, he saw his wife sleeping with his servant. He pulled out his sword and proceeded to kill them. The commotion woke up the servant and the queen. The king was flabbergasted as both protested their innocence. He had seen them both in the bed together but had also heard them claim that they did not know how they had ended up being there with each other. So what was true? That what he saw or that what he heard?

He called the wazir who reviewed the situation carefully and turned to the king. “If you had killed them, their murder would have been on your hands,” the wazir said, and then reminded the king of what he had said earlier: “Seeing something with your own eyes or hearing it with your own ears does not necessarily mean it is true.”

A long time ago, a man belonging to a Baloch tribe called Gopang moved from Dera Ghazi Khan to the outskirts of Rahim Yar Khan city. He built a home, raised cattle and cultivated sugarcane and wheat in nearby fields.

Ghulam Farid, Ghulam Qadir, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Ghaus, all brothers, descended from the Gopang man generations later, living where he had lived but doing many different things to get by: working as carpenters, repairmen, mechanics and electricians. The women in their household worked as farm labourers.

Their life was difficult. It was also mundane.

Then something extraordinary happened.

Ghulam Qadir’s daughter Salma, about 14 years old, was kidnapped in early 2001. She was different from the other children in the family. She stitched her own clothes and spent her time doing embroidery. She was also good at drawing trees and people on paper.

Her kidnapper, Muhammad Akmal, was the son of a relatively well-off land owner who lived a kilometre away from where she lived. Salma’s family heard that he took her to Sibbi, a district in central Balochistan. They also heard that she went with him voluntarily because the two were in love.

Salma’s father approached a Gopang chieftain in the area to try to get her back. The chieftain put pressure on Akmal to return the girl. So he did around six months after he had taken her away.

After returning home, Salma would cry incessantly. She was worried that she had inflicted shame upon her family and was unable to cope with the trauma of her kidnapping.

The house where Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar once lived on the outskirts of Rahim Yar Khan | Subuk Hasnain
The house where Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar once lived on the outskirts of Rahim Yar Khan | Subuk Hasnain

Consolation came a few months later. Akmal’s family agreed to marry him to Salma after her family had so demanded. The wedding date was fixed for February 3, 2002.

The evening before the wedding day, Salma’s father, Ghulam Qadir, visited Akmal’s home to finalise some last minute arrangements. The groom’s parents and an uncle were also present. They continued talking till 11:00 pm.

From then onwards, different people saw and heard differently, depending on which family they belonged to.

Here is the version of Akmal’s family:

When Ghulam Qadir got up to leave, Akmal walked with him to the door. The moment the two reached the door, Ghulam Qadir pulled out a pistol and fired several straight shots at Akmal who fell on the floor. Ghulam Qadir’s brothers and a few cousins were also waiting on the street. They entered Akmal’s house and one of them, Ghulam Farid, opened fire at the rest of Akmal’s family, killing his father and hurting his mother and uncle. The assailants then ran back to their own house where Ghulam Qadir and his brother, Ghulam Sarwar, shot Salma dead.

This is the other version:

Ghulam Qadir, his brothers and cousins killed or injured no one. Another wedding was taking place near Akmal’s house. Someone opened fire there. Nobody knows who or why. These shots killed Akmal and his father. The rest of his family ran after Ghulam Qadir and his companions, believing that they had killed the two. When they could not catch up with them, they went to Ghulam Qadir’s house and killed Salma instead.

Ghulam Qadir, his brothers and cousins initially ran away from the area but came back a few hours later and were arrested. Their trial continued for three years in a court in Rahim Yar Khan. The trial court convicted Ghulam Qadir, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Farid of killing Akmal, his father and Salma. Their fourth brother, Ghulam Ghaus, and their cousins were acquitted. Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar were given the death sentence. Ghulam Farid was sentenced to life imprisonment.

The convicts filed appeals, first at the Multan Bench of the Lahore High Court – which upheld their conviction and sentences in a verdict given on May 26, 2009 – and then at the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2010. Six years later, a three-member bench of the apex court sustained their respective punishments for killing Akmal and his father but decided to hear their appeal in Salma’s murder case separately.

During subsequent hearings, the judges came upon something unusual. Those acquitted by the trial court had been given the benefit of the doubt because statements by witnesses were either contradictory or unreliable. The judges concluded that the sentences given to Ghulam Qadir, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Farid were not justifiable because they had been based on the same flawed testimonies. In October 20, 2016, the three were acquitted.

Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar were already dead by then. They were hanged in a jail in Bahawalpur on October 12, 2015.

Asma Nawab woke up at 7:00 am on April 6, 2018. She got out of bed and immediately sat on the floor. This had been her routine for the past 20 years. She did not realise that she no longer needs to do it. She is no longer in jail where it was a mandatory part of an early morning prisoner count every day. She then stood up and went to the kitchen to make herself a cup of tea.

It took Asma a while to understand where she was. Released a day earlier, she went to live in a small apartment in Karachi’s Saddar area with the family of her lawyer, Javed Chhatari. She saw the door and realised she could walk out if she wanted to — in prison, her cell had a locked iron grill.

Life in a prison is a test of patience. Seconds turn into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days, days into weeks, weeks into months, and then years go by without any sign that your life is changing. Some make peace with it. Others lose their mind.

Imdad Ali, a death row inmate, was suffering from schizophrenia and paranoia when he was in jail. When his black warrant – the official order to hang him – was issued in October 2016, he was not in a stable state of mind to know what it meant. He did not understand why his relatives were crying during what could have been his last meeting with them. “They might have given me the black warrant but they do not know that I have a white warrant,” Imdad Ali is quoted by a legal aid worker to have told his family. He had started believing that he could resurrect himself.

Left to right: Ghulam Farid, Ghulam Qadir, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Ghaus | Subuk Hasnain
Left to right: Ghulam Farid, Ghulam Qadir, Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Ghaus | Subuk Hasnain

When death row inmates are kept in solitary confinement, the loneliness becomes so acute that they hanker after any sort of company. One former inmate, who has spoken to many death row prisoners, narrates how those in solitary cells save the best part of their meals for the cats that wander through the jail — to secure at least some company. “There is no one to speak to. Only empty walls to stare at,” says the former prisoner.

Asma experienced all this. She spent nine months in a solitary cell. For a very long time, she was the only woman on death row in Karachi.

The first few days in jail were the hardest for her. No one came to see her except her lawyer. Over time, though, she became accustomed to prison life. She spent her time studying and writing court appeals for other prisoners. She watched films and television shows and listened to songs with other inmates. She met female prisoners from many parts of the world and made friends with many of them. They all left one by one while she could not.

The entire jail celebrated when Asma was ordered to be released. She felt like it was her wedding day, or Eid. Perhaps it was more special than that. How many death row inmates get out of jail alive?

On the night after her release, Chhatari and his family took her to the beach and then for dinner. She seemed to register nothing. The sea, the food, the fashion trends, the roads — nothing looked like it had in 1998 when she lost her freedom. The unfamiliar world around her was making her anxious.

A few days later, she decided to cook her first meal. When she picked up a knife to chop onions, it felt strange. It was after two decades that she was holding a knife.

Asma is now living in northwest Karachi with a family friend of Chhatari and is slowly getting used to life outside jail. Her host, who looks too young to be the mother of seven children, makes sure that Asma does not have an idle moment. She takes her out for shopping and got her a makeover: her hair has been cut and straightened, mascara highlights her eyelashes and her lipstick matches her dress.

Asma’s face lights up when she starts talking about some of the happier times in jail, but mid-sentence her face drops as she recalls the difficulties.

Asma Nawab walks with her lawyer, Javed Chhatari after her trial in 1999 in Karachi | Courtesy Javed Chhatari
Asma Nawab walks with her lawyer, Javed Chhatari after her trial in 1999 in Karachi | Courtesy Javed Chhatari

On Wednesday, December 30, 1998, Asma stood outside her house in Karachi and screamed. It was around 8:00 am. Some neighbours approached her and asked what the matter was. Her mother, father and brother were lying dead inside the house, she said. Their throats were slit and their bodies covered in blood.

Asma made a phone call to her mother’s elder sister from her house – D-2/133 in the Saudabad neighbourhood of Malir area – and her son called the police to inform them about the murders. Asma, then 20, was arrested the next day after her aunt accused her of murdering her own parents and brother.

Two days later, a young man named Javed was arrested. The police record shows him having revealed that he and two other young men, Farhan and Waseem, had killed Asma’s family with active help from her. The police also claimed to have recovered bloodstained knives, plastic pistols, broken toys and burnt shirts from Javed’s possession as evidence of the crime.

The two remaining suspects were arrested within 24 hours. Gold ornaments and prize bonds stolen from Asma’s house were retrieved from them. One of them, Farhan, was identified in police records as her boyfriend.

All those arrested, according to an investigation report, confessed to committing the murders. A magistrate duly recorded their confessional statements as is required under the law.

When the trial started at an antiterrorism court in early 1999, the four pleaded innocent. They said their confessional statements were obtained by the police through coercion.

The prosecution’s star witness was Asma’s own cousin. “She says she was in college when the murder happened but the college was closed that day,” he testified. The court took only a few months to arrive at a decision. Farhan, Javed and Asma were sentenced to death. Waseem received 10 years in prison.

They immediately filed appeals at the Sindh High Court. Almost a decade later, a two-judge antiterrorism appellate bench of the high court delivered a split judgment on their appeals. One judged acquitted them. The other upheld their conviction and sentences.

Asma Nawab living in northwestern Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Asma Nawab living in northwestern Karachi | Mohammad Ali, White Star

The chief justice of the high court referred the case to another judge to decide on which verdict to implement. The referee judge took about six years to make up his mind. He sided with the judge who had upheld the conviction and sentences.

Waseem had already served his sentence by that time. The remaining three filed another appeal — this time at the Supreme Court.

A three-member bench of the apex court finally ruled on April 3 this year that there was no evidence available on record to directly link Asma, Farhan and Javed with the murders. “The court observed that the prosecution had failed to establish its charges as the evidence put forward before [the judges] was not sufficient,” reads a report in the daily Dawn.

Even otherwise, the newspaper quoted one of the judges as pointing out, “The accused persons were behind bars for the last 20 years which is itself a punishment.”

Hardly anyone living and working on Lahore’s Raiwind Road knows where Firdaus Colony is but many know about the encounter that took place there on July 16, 2014.

The colony is a nondescript, unplanned working-class neighbourhood. It has fields to its north and east. To the south, it is bound by a small road that juts out eastward from the Lahore-Raiwind road at a place called Chowk Araiyan. The colony is about five kilometres to the east of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s private residence in Jati Umrah.

The encounter took place inside a two-storey house located near the end of a street.

On a March day this year, the street is abuzz with life. In the middle of it rests a heap of sand. A house is being built nearby. Some doors are open, covered only with thin cloth curtains. Women shuffle in and out of their homes, wiping sweat from their foreheads with their dupattas. Two stand with their men, hands clenched into fists and on their hips. They seem to be arguing.

The residents of the street say they never spotted anything suspicious about the house where the shoot-out took place. None of them know the people who lived there – what their names were, where they came from, what they did for a living – beyond the fact that they had moved in sometime in May 2014.

The locals saw the residents of the house only in the morning when they left on a motorcycle and then late in the evening when they returned. “I think one of them was a student,” says a boy in his late teens.

A summary of the official first information report (FIR) thus records the encounter:

A contingent of Military intelligence (MI) took position in front of the house on the night of July 16, 2014. Personnel of Raiwind police joined the MI officials at 12:30 am. The members of the two forces then proceeded towards the house but a hand grenade was thrown in their direction from the inside when they reached the entrance. A lieutenant colonel and a soldier got hurt when the grenade exploded. The latter died a little later. Those present in the house fired at the raiding party. The officials called for more personnel who arrived immediately. They surrounded the house, threw tear gas shells inside and fired back. Shooting by the occupants of the house, meanwhile, injured some members of the police’s elite commandos as well. The crossfire stopped at around 12:00 pm on July 17 — presumably after the shooters operating from inside the house had managed to escape. One of them was later found dead on the first floor. Many weapons, including 11 hand grenades, five rounds of submachine gun bullets and imported magazines, were recovered from the house, as was pro-jihad and anti-military literature.

The FIR, while elaborate on how the encounter unfolded, is silent on the identity of the men living in the house. It does not even name the dead shooter.

Even today, the local police officials seem to have little clue. “Were they students?” asks Asif Khan, who headed the police in the area when the shoot-out took place. He does not have an answer to his question. Another police officer who participated in the encounter is now working as a deputy superintendent of police in Lahore’s Dolphin Squad that specialises in preventing street crimes. He says the police were not given much information about the men. It was a military case so the police were kept out of it, he says.

News reports about the encounter only add to the mystery. They quoted police sources claiming that two shooters, not one, had died in the encounter.

One of them would be later named as Aqsan Mehboob, son of Asghar Ali, a resident of Okara district and a student at the University of Education in Lahore.

The official motto of the University of Education is: “Truth, the ultimate virtue”. Mehboob was a student here for less than a year between October 2013 and June 2014, studying for a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He was number 11 on the merit list for admissions.

Dr Muhammad Umer Saleem, the university’s director of student affairs, contacts Mehboob’s teachers on May 4 this year, seeking details of his time on the campus. The teachers remember him as a tall boy with grey eyes and a short beard. They say he was emotional and impulsive. They also say he was a bright student.

These two sides of his personality become split when his class fellows and other students talk about him. Some of them remember him as having awkward body language, like that of a rural person trying to adjust to an urban milieu. He walked and talked like a robot, they say, and mostly kept to himself. If his class grouped together and sat with one another, Mehboob chose to sit by himself.

Others say he was an impressive public speaker — having won second place in a speech competition in his native district in 2008. He argued strongly and passionately, they say. According to one of his teachers, he often cried while giving speeches. His favourite topics, according to the same teacher, were the Pakistan Army, of which he spoke favourably, and the fall of Dhaka in 1971.

Mehboob was also said to speak openly against Shias. It was also around the same time that his class fellows heard him speak against the army.

His performance at university also changed between the two semesters. His grades at the end of the first semester were good, ranging between 65 per cent and 90 per cent. He obtained his highest marks in Pakistan Studies.

In the second semester, he did not appear for two papers and did not score more than 70 per cent in any of the others. He got only 62 per cent in Islamic Studies — his worst score.

Asghar Ali holds a photo of his son, Aqsan Mehboob, in Okara this year | Subuk Hasnain
Asghar Ali holds a photo of his son, Aqsan Mehboob, in Okara this year | Subuk Hasnain

Mehboob’s lack of interest in studies was rather obvious during the second semester. He was once kicked out of his organic chemistry class for laughing at something and disrupting the lecture.

After he missed a midterm paper during his second semester, his teacher remembers seeing him walk up to her with a limp. He said he had injured his leg in a motorcycle accident.

Mehboob was also having problems at his home — a flat in Faisal Town, about three kilometres from the university. He lived there with a childhood friend and some others. In February 2014, he stormed out of the flat after an argument with his roommates.

“He used to argue about the correct way to pray, and about Shias,” says one of his roommates.

He came back to the flat only once to apologise. None of them knew where he had moved.

The sky on a recent April night is pitch-black. An electricity outage makes it even more so. A tractor’s engine runs in the distance to power a lone fan and a single bulb inside a bricks and mortar house. Moths and mosquitoes swarm around the dim yellow light of the bulb, dimming it further. Crickets, out of sight, engage in a monotone chorus.

A strong wind starts blowing from the west and sweeps across the village where the house is located. It tosses and turns everything that comes in its way. Trees sway wildly. Crickets go silent. Mosquitoes, flies and moths take shelter in their hideouts and the distant noise of the tractor’s engine is drowned out by the sound of the gale. It also brings an unexpected wave of pleasant weather.

The next morning, everything is covered in a layer of dust.

Asghar Ali and his extended family, living in the village of Chak 18-D in Okara district, are hoping for something similar. They are praying for an unexpected boon to accrue from something that has shattered their lives.

Asghar Ali is a lean, middle-aged man with a long grey beard and no permanent source of income. He usually works in potato and maize fields owned by others. When he cannot find work in his village, he travels to Hujra Shah Muqeem, a town about nine kilometres to the south, to work as a carpenter. His daily income never exceeds 500 rupees unless it is supplemented by what his wife Mussarat Bibi occasionally earns from her farm labour.

Their son, Aqsan Mehboob, was born on March 11, 1996. Since then, they have had six more children – three boys and three girls — but he remains their favourite.

Asghar Ali always wanted his son to do well at school so he gave him the beating of his life for failing in grade five. Mehboob never failed again. His relatives as well as many others in the village say he became a bookworm. He was never seen playing with other boys again. He secured 952 marks out of a total of 1,050 in his matriculation exam in 2011, topping his entire district. Two years later, he got 859 out of a total of 1,100 marks in his intermediate exam.

Police and military personnel at the site of Firdaus Colony encounter on July 17, 2014 | M Arif, White Star
Police and military personnel at the site of Firdaus Colony encounter on July 17, 2014 | M Arif, White Star

Mehboob was studying one night at home when the electricity failed. He went to his paternal aunt’s house, looking for a matchbox to light a lantern. One day, he said, he would stop asking her for such small favours. He often made such promises. His three aunts once held draws to decide which one of them could have him as their son-in-law. Mehboob promised to marry a daughter of each aunt. He wanted to arrange free medicine for his village. He also wanted to join the army.

Some months after Mehboob joined the university, his father had a dream. He saw police surrounding his house, their guns pointed at him and his son. They seemed to be waiting for an order.

When Mehboob visited his village a few days later, Asghar Ali shared his dream with him. He feared something bad might happen to his son. Mehboob consoled him and told him that God would take care of everything.

A few days later, Mehboob was reported dead.

His family first heard the news on television. Soon the news media swarmed his village, filming his humble house and narrating his journey from a poor but high-achieving student to a dead terrorist.

Mehboob’s mother asked the local police for his body be returned to his family, but she was not even shown the body. Days later, he returned to her — in a dream. He called out to her and said, “Mother, I am back.”

Mehboob was not among the two men who died in the Firdaus Colony encounter, the police soon found out.

One of them turned out to be Muhammad Tufail, a resident of Okara’s adjacent district, Pakpattan. The police accused him of “assisting” Mehboob “in carrying out” terrorist activities in Lahore. The other was identified as Zulfiqar Nazir, a resident of Malik Hans town, also in Pakpattan district.

A counterterrorism department team soon raided Mehboob’s house in Chak 18-D. They were looking for weapons but did not find any. Another police party came to the village a few days later and arrested around six people from the local mosque, including Mehboob’s first cousin Zulfiqar Nazir — a namesake of the second man who was found dead in the encounter.

Muhammad Ishaq, a local imam, was also among the arrested. He taught religion to children in Chak 18-D and was associated with a madrasa set up by Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) about four kilometres from the village. His affiliation with the madrasa was known to everyone around him. Mehboob was once among his students.

The police released all the detained men — except Ishaq. He returned a year later — dead. The police claimed he was killed in a shoot-out near Multan. There were wounds on his wrists and fingers and he had a bullet hole in his head and two in his chest, says a young man from Chak 18-D who saw the body.

Four years on: the house where the shoot-out took place is now inhabited by another family | Subuk Hasnain
Four years on: the house where the shoot-out took place is now inhabited by another family | Subuk Hasnain

A police report describes Mehboob as an “aggressive young man” who “got inclination for jihad and got proper training” but there is no evidence to suggest that it was Ishaq who trained him in terrorism or introduced him to jihadi groups. Investigators linked to the case, however, say Mehboob, like Ishaq, was initially linked to LeT but later joined al Qaeda.

Mehboob’s family, meanwhile, had no idea where he was — or even if he was alive. They had no money to conduct a search, no influential contacts to find him.

And then he came back. Not in person, but in the form of an official statement that verified that he was alive.

On January 1, 2016, the military’s public relations department, Inter-Services Public Relations, released a terse press release. It stated that a military court had sentenced Mehboob to death for being associated with al Qaeda and for killing members of the security forces.

Asghar Ali lost consciousness when he found out about the death sentence. But his prayers had been answered. His son was not dead — even though death was still stalking him.

The first challenge for Asghar Ali was to find out where Mehboob was being kept in custody. The news media solved the mystery. He was in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail. The second hurdle was to find a lawyer and file an appeal against Mehboob’s conviction and sentence.

One of his nephews, Abdul Sattar, came to know through some friends about a lawyer, Inamul Rahiem, a retired colonel based in Rawalpindi with vast legal experience in military-related cases. He is known for having moved the appeals at the military’s appellate tribunals on behalf of a number of people convicted and sentenced by military courts.

Mehboob’s mother first moved a petition at the Rawalpindi bench of the Lahore High Court through Rahiem, contending that her son had been tried at a military court with mala fide intentions. She pleaded that his conviction and sentence be overturned. The judge hearing the case rejected her plea.

Aqsan Mehboob’s younger sisters and cousins take a stroll around their village in Okara | Subuk Hasnain
Aqsan Mehboob’s younger sisters and cousins take a stroll around their village in Okara | Subuk Hasnain

Mehboob’s parents also lodged an appeal at the military’s own appellate tribunal but a letter sent from the military general headquarters in Rawalpindi to the superintendent of Kot Lakhpat jail states that the appeal was rejected on March 22, 2016.

Next, they went to the Supreme Court and filed an appeal through another lawyer, former colonel Muhammad Akram, who also specialises in military-related cases. A three-judge bench stayed Mehboob’s execution in June 2016 — until a final order was passed on his appeal.

The final order came on August 29 of the same year. The judges dismissed the appeal. Within a month, Mehboob’s lawyer filed a review petition in front of a larger bench of the Supreme Court. It was accepted for hearing – thus delaying his execution – but no major proceedings have taken place on it since then.

For the last two years, Mehboob has been imprisoned in Sahiwal. His father and brothers meet him inside a high-security prison almost twice a month.

“It is a graveyard for the living,” Asghar Ali says, as he talks about Mehboob’s solitary life in a prison cell. He is allowed to leave the cell only for two hours each day – in two breaks staggered by 12 hours. His cell is clean but small. His meetings with his family are strictly monitored and his communication thoroughly scanned.

Mehboob has managed to send a handwritten letter to the lawyer fighting his case. It is essentially a plea to the authorities for justice but it also offers his version of how his life changed from that of a student to that of a convicted terrorist on death row.

Below is a summary of the letter:

On July 17, 2014, Mehboob was returning to his apartment in Faisal Town from a nearby house where he worked as a tutor. Some unknown persons picked him up near Faisal Town Police Station. He was blindfolded, masked and handcuffed. He was also informed that he was in MI’s custody and that he would be allowed to leave after interrogation. He was moved to an undisclosed location where he was asked a series of questions: are you a terrorist? What do you think you are going to get out of your studies?

When he answered the second question by saying that he wanted to join the army, somebody hit him. Then he was beaten repeatedly. He was told to admit that he was a terrorist. During the beatings he eventually lost consciousness. When he regained his senses, he was tortured again and asked the same questions. This continued for approximately three months.

During one of the interrogation sessions, Mehboob claims he received a head injury that affected his mental stability. He also claims he was given electric shocks and made to stand upright day and night. This last act would make him dizzy and unconscious. He also lost his appetite. Another episode of torture, he said, ripped some flesh off his left thigh.

One year and two months after he was picked up, he was produced in a military court, but he was not mentally fit to stand trial so he was sent to a hospital for treatment. Mehboob claims to have no memory of going to a court again. On January 4, 2016, he was shifted to Kot Lakhpat jail.

“I request the government of Pakistan to give me a free medical check-up so that everyone can see the physical abuse I have gone through,” his letter states at the end.

It is impossible to verify or deny the veracity of his claims — except perhaps by those who know the secret details of his interrogation and trial. One of his claims immediately stands out though: he says he was still living in the Faisal Town apartment on July 16, 2014. His roommate says he was living somewhere else at the time.

The punishment

When Sohail Yafat arrived in Sahiwal jail in 2001, he felt he was walking into a quagmire — both physically and metaphorically.

Behind its solid brick walls, the prison was a dirty mess. It was also a horribly boring place. He did not know how to spend his time. He also did not know when he would get back to the world outside, if ever. Life seemed like an infinitely long moment in which nothing remarkable happened.

Yafat stayed in jail for nine years. He managed to get through his time by forming bonds with other prisoners and getting in on all the inside jokes — many of them about jail food. The meat served to the prisoners was called ‘diesel’ because of its gooey, oily texture and when cauliflower was cooked in the jail kitchen, its stench would make everyone run for cover. He also worked on building a church inside the prison for himself and other Christian inmates.

Yafat was sent behind bars for a murder he says he had no role in, yet it took him almost a decade to prove his innocence. He points to several problems that delay the criminal justice system, starting with flaws in investigation. The police usually collect whatever rudimentary evidence that they can from a crime scene. They back it up with oral statements from witnesses as well as confessions by any suspects they arrest.

An initial investigation report based on these elements is often full of contradictions. The evidence is never analysed, witness statements are not thoroughly vetted and confessions are routinely obtained through torture — and therefore retracted during court proceedings. The irony is that entire trials depend on whatever story an investigating team puts together, Yafat says. Bribing the police to get a favourable investigation is not only tempting for the parties to a crime, it is also rampant.

Asghar Ali reads a clipping from an Urdu language newspaper that declared his son dead in July 2014 | Subuk Hasnain
Asghar Ali reads a clipping from an Urdu language newspaper that declared his son dead in July 2014 | Subuk Hasnain

On the flip side, investigators complain that they never get the resources they need. A sub-inspector working in Lahore’s Gulberg area says policemen often do not have the money to even revisit a crime scene. They also do not have enough time to investigate each crime in their jurisdiction. The crime rate is always higher than the human resources available to counter it.

What happens in court is another long story. Yafat’s own case illustrates some of the problems the justice system is saddled with. Consider the following facts:

Yafat was a college student and was also working simultaneously in the marketing department of another college in Lahore. One day in May 2001, he went with a friend to a hospital in the same city, where his friend’s father was undergoing treatment. Yafat was to spend the night there, taking care of the patient. A police party came to the hospital in civilian clothes sometime during the night. They took him into custody, blindfolded him and drove him to a police station where he was asked to identify two people already under detention. He did not know them. The police asked him about another person. He knew him, though he did not understand why the police were asking him about someone who was not even around.

The police booked Yafat and the other two for a murder that had taken place in Sahiwal in January 2001. There was another suspect involved but he was on the run.

In January 2003, a trial court acquitted the two men arrested along with Yafat but gave him life imprisonment. He filed an appeal from jail against his sentence but it made no progress. In 2005, police arrested the absconding suspect but he was released after 90 days.

It took five more years for his appeal to be heard by a high court — and another five to overturn his sentence. “Ideally, it should have taken two to three years,” he says.

Trial courts are usually overburdened and understaffed. Judges have very little time to hear every case in detail. Adjournments are a norm. The chances of an innocent person getting convicted and a guilty one being acquitted are as high – or as low – as the chances of survival of a mosquito swatted with a sledgehammer.

Yafat was released on bail in 2010 and was acquitted in 2015. After his release from jail, he has been working as an investigator with the Justice Project Pakistan.

Sarah Belal is a foreign-trained lawyer. She is the founder and executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan. Her organisation focuses on the rights of prisoners in the country. Sitting in her office in Lahore’s neighbourhood of Zaman Park, she points out flaws in the death penalty system.

In order to talk about the death penalty in Pakistan, she says, one needs to frame the debate within the structural problems that the judicial system faces. “[Most] people might be in favour of the ultimate punishment but the question really is: are we getting the right people?” she asks. “And is it having the affect that we want it to have?”

The answer to the first question, according to her, is a “resounding no”. We have juvenile offenders, mentally ill and innocent people who have confessed to crimes under duress, she says.

Human rights groups and the news media have highlighted some cases recently in which people suffering from severe psychological problems are waiting to be executed. Imdad Ali’s case stands out among them because it has put the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the horns of a dilemma. The court has to make up its mind as to whether schizophrenia is a mental illness and whether those suffering from it deserve reprieve from the death penalty. So far, the judges have given contradictory signals.

According to the brief facts of Imdad Ali’s case, he is a resident of Burewala area of Vehari district in southern Punjab and was sentenced to death in 2002 in a murder case. All legal forums, including the Supreme Court of Pakistan, have upheld his death sentence.

Imdad Ali has been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia since the beginning of his sentence. Dr Tahir Feroze, a consultant psychiatrist at the government-run Nishtar Hospital in Multan, has treated him for several years in jail and, according to the daily Dawn, deems his mental illness chronic.

An honour’s board at Aqsan Mehboob’s high school names him as the top achiever in Okara district in 2011 in his matriculation exam | Subuk Hasnain
An honour’s board at Aqsan Mehboob’s high school names him as the top achiever in Okara district in 2011 in his matriculation exam | Subuk Hasnain

When a black warrant was issued for Imdad Ali’s execution in July 2016, his wife approached the Lahore High Court’s Multan bench, pleading that his execution be stopped on medical grounds. The high court rejected her petition on August 23 that year.

She immediately moved a similar petition at the Supreme Court. A three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali heard her petition and ruled on September 27, 2016 that schizophrenia did not fall within the legal definition of mental disorders. “Schizophrenia is not a permanent mental disorder, rather an imbalance, increasing or decreasing depending upon the level of stress,” the judges stated, clearing the way for Imdad Ali’s execution.

Within less than a month, his wife filed a petition at the Supreme Court for a review of the verdict by a larger bench that stayed his execution on October 31, 2016. The bench later formed a medical board to re-examine his condition and submit a report in two weeks. The proceedings in the case have been pending since then.

In a similar case, Khizar Hayat, a former policeman, was scheduled to be hanged in January 2017 but the Supreme Court stayed his execution at the last moment on an appeal filed by his mother. Sentenced to death in 2003 for killing another police official, he has been in jail for more than 15 years. He has been suffering from paranoid schizophrenia since 2008.

A 2016 report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent civil rights monitoring group based in Lahore, points out that problems in dealing with mentally ill crime suspects start at the initial stages of the trial. The “litmus test” for judges at trial courts “to assess an undertrial person’s sanity [is] to ask them to state their name”.

Some other death row prisoners are known to have developed debilitating and chronic physical conditions during their long imprisonment. Mazhar Hussain, a resident of Islamabad, died in jail in 2014 due to coronary failure. He had spent the previous 12 years on death row for a 1997 murder. In October 2016, the Supreme Court took up his long-delayed appeal against his conviction and, not knowing that he had already died, exonerated him from the murder charges.

Abdul Basit, another death row prisoner, became paralysed from the waist down after suffering from meningitis in prison in 2010. He was sentenced to death a year earlier. The Supreme Court approved his execution on September 21, 2015, but for various reasons it has been delayed since then.

Pakistan is one of five countries with the highest number of executions in the world – the others are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. According to an HRCP report, Pakistan executed 333 people in 2015 – the first full year after a six-year moratorium on the death penalty was lifted. Another 87 people were hanged in 2016. Their number fell to 44 in 2017.

The data put together by the Justice Project Pakistan differs a little: seven people were executed in Pakistan in 2014, 325 in 2015, 88 in 2016 and 55 in 2017. One out of every 70 prisoners added to an overpopulated jail has been executed in the three years since late 2014, the organisation states.

Some other numbers corroborate this data. President Mamnoon Hussain has rejected 513 mercy petitions filed by the families of death row inmates in the last five years. These petitions more or less correspond to the number of people executed over the same period of time.

The Justice Project Pakistan highlights that executions spiked in the weeks following a terrorist attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014, but it also points out that 88 per cent of those executed in those weeks had no links to “any crimes reasonably defined as terrorism”.

The death sentence is awarded for as many as 27 offences in Pakistan. These include murder, terrorist activities, rape, high treason, blasphemy, apostasy, drug trafficking and kidnapping intended for murder. Pregnant women, children and mentally and intellectually handicapped persons cannot be given the death penalty (though this exemption does not apply to blasphemy cases registered under Section 295-C of the Pakistan Penal Code).

Inside a sessions court in Lahore | Subuk Hasnain
Inside a sessions court in Lahore | Subuk Hasnain

It is difficult to ascertain the total number of death sentences awarded across Pakistan every year since the government does not collect and collate such data. The only statistics available pertain to military courts that have been authorised, under a constitutional amendment passed in 2015, to hear terrorism-related cases. Between January 2015 and May 2018, these courts have given the death sentence to 207 people. Out of these, at least 56 have been executed.

The government also maintains no countrywide data set about death row prisoners. The figures collected by the Justice Project Pakistan put the total number of inmates on death row at 8,200.

To decrease these numbers, the organisation has recommended, in a briefing paper titled Reducing the Scope of the Death Penalty, that the government: 1) reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty with the aim to eventually abolish capital punishment; 2) initiate a legislative process to revise the Pakistan Penal Code to limit the death penalty only to cases in which intentional killing has taken place; 3) provide judicial remedies to death row convicts in whose cases new evidence has been discovered which may serve as a basis for reducing their sentence; 4) commute the death sentence of all juveniles and those suffering from mental illnesses.

Faisal Siddiqi, a Karachi-based human rights lawyer, believes some of these demands are not realistic. Abolishing the death penalty in Pakistan is impossible, he says, because it is an integral part of Islamic punishments. The Islamic Republic of Pakistan cannot remove it from its statutes, he says.

There is also a lot of public support for the death penalty, he says. There are terrorists, sectarian killers and murderers out there who are a menace to public order and it makes sense to eliminate them through the justice system so that they do not get out of jail and resume their heinous activities, he argues.

Siddiqui, though, is supportive of the demand to limit the application of the death penalty. It should not be applied in each and every situation, he says. Implement it the way India does, he adds. “In the rarest of rare cases.”

Siddiqui is also not sure if Pakistan can reinstate the moratorium it placed on executions between 2008 and 2013. He wonders if the government has the power to place a moratorium in the first place. “What law does it even come under?”

Imdad Ali’s wife | Courtesy Justice Project Pakistan
Imdad Ali’s wife | Courtesy Justice Project Pakistan

Even the President of Pakistan does not have the power to impose a moratorium in spite of his authority to pardon a death sentence under Article 45 of the Constitution. He can use this power only in individual cases in which his power to pardon is specifically invoked, says Siddiqui. “What he cannot do is to say that he is suspending all death sentences.”

Siddiqui also argues that a moratorium results in delays in execution which, in turn, means that death row prisoners will stay in jails longer than they otherwise would.

Farhatullah Babar, a former senator and the secretary general of the Pakistan Peoples Party-Parliamentarian (PPPP), acknowledges that the moratorium placed on executions during his party’s government in 2008-2013 was not really a moratorium. “Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani made a statement in his inaugural speech in the National Assembly that the government would review [the] death penalty. This statement was then used by President Asif Ali Zardari who would write on death warrants. [Zardari said] ‘since the prime minister has stated that we will review the death penalty, let us place a hold on it for now,’” reveals Babar who worked as Zardari’s spokesperson during his presidency.

His party’s own history is a major reason why it takes a rather dim view of the death penalty. Its founder Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979 by a military government after his trial in a murder case that most jurists regard as a sham. Many of the party’s activists were also executed during General Ziaul Haq’s dictatorship under various trumped up charges.

The party, therefore, has always wanted to do something about the death penalty — short of getting rid of it altogether. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s daughter Benazir Bhutto first came to power in 1988 after years of martial rule in the country, she commuted the death sentence of as many as 1,889 convicts to life imprisonment. Babar and many other senior leaders in PPPP – as well as in its earlier avatar, PPP – are convinced that the “death penalty does not end crime”.

They also have another reason to oppose it: “It is irreversible.” If there is a miscarriage of justice in trials, Babar says, the death penalty will result in the killing of innocent people.

Saroop Ijaz, a Lahore-based lawyer who also works for Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy and monitoring body, believes the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance of 1990 has strengthened the legitimacy of the death penalty to the extent of making it irreversible. Since qisas is the Islamic principle of ‘like for like’, it requires that trials for crimes involving harm to human body result in similar harm to the body of the criminal. This perhaps was the reason why a judge in Lahore in the early 2000s ruled that Javed Iqbal – who surrendered in 1999 for raping and killing scores of children – be put to death by tearing his body into a hundred pieces since he had done the same to his victims.

A view of Lahore’s Tollinton Market that stands opposite the site of a public hanging just outside Shadman jail | Murtaza Ali, White Star
A view of Lahore’s Tollinton Market that stands opposite the site of a public hanging just outside Shadman jail | Murtaza Ali, White Star

Ironically, diyat, or financial compensation, is the only provision in Pakistani law that allows a murderer to escape the death penalty by paying a court-sanctioned amount of money to the legal heirs of his victim. What the courts or the Constitution cannot do, money can: it offers an alternative to the death penalty, though, as many jurists and legal experts have pointed out, it also creates a discriminatory legal regime. Those who can afford to pay diyat can literally get away with murder but those who cannot must go to the gallows.

The twin concepts of qisas and diyat, according to Ijaz, also illustrate something deeper. They put the conversation about the death penalty in Pakistan in the context of revenge and retribution. Such contextualisation, he says, explains why the state is often called upon to exact revenge and inflict pain upon one’s tormentors — so that the victims do not have to do it on their own. This desire to hurt and harm criminals also explains why there are always public calls for stringent laws and even more stringent penalties for every crime — from mugging to murder to mutiny.

When Nawaz Sharif announced an end to the moratorium on executions in the wake of the 2014 Peshawar school attack, says Ijaz, he did not do so because there was public demand to use the death penalty as a deterrence to violence and terrorism. The announcement was made in response to people’s demand for imposing summary justice and inflicting exemplary punishment on those who had taken the lives of around 150, mostly children, in that attack. The man on the street wanted them to be hanged publicly to avenge their dastardly act rather than to make an example out of them for other intending terrorists.

We witnessed a similar situation in the wake of a six-year-old girl’s rape and murder in Kasur early this year, Ijaz says. Demands for the public hanging of her killer were so loud and so widespread that even those in government had to endorse them — even if for the sake of placating public sentiment.

Ejaz Ahmed alias Pappu was the son of a business professional, Ahmed Dawood, who worked as a textile adviser for the Saigol Group of Industries. Pappu was abducted from outside his house in Lahore’s Gulberg area on December 18, 1977. His kidnappers sexually assaulted him before they killed him. They then threw his body in a pond. He was only 12 years old — and the lone brother to eight sisters.

There was a public outcry of anger and grief. Newspapers carried statements by anyone who was anyone in the country at the time, demanding the immediate arrest of the culprits and asking for an exemplary punishment for them.

Those were times of great change. General Ziaul Haq had deposed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in a coup only five months earlier in the wake of a movement for the implementation of Nizam-e-Mustafa — the system of the Prophet of Islam or sharia. Summary military courts were operating across the country, prosecuting mostly political activists but also all kinds of crooks and delinquents. Bhutto was also in jail, facing a murder trial.

The military regime wanted to assure the public that it was sincere in implementing sharia. It also required that popular attention be diverted from Bhutto’s trial, which had become a spectacle in spite of comprehensive censorship of media coverage.

When police in Lahore arrested three people (who were working as domestic help in the city but belonged to a village in Kashmir) for Pappu’s rape and murder, the state was more than willing to accept the public’s demand for their quick trial and execution. Indeed, it happily went a step further by ordering their public execution.

A peepal tree where, according to some witnesses, the gallows were built in 1978 to carry out a public hanging in Lahore | Subuk Hasnain
A peepal tree where, according to some witnesses, the gallows were built in 1978 to carry out a public hanging in Lahore | Subuk Hasnain

An official press note issued on March 12, 1978, at the end of a trial that concluded in less than three months, reads: “In Ejaz Alias Papoo’s murder case, convicts Mohammad Afraq Ahmad s/o Mohammad Aslam Khan, Mohammad Hanif s/o Abdul Khan and Sher Alam s/o Dost Mohammad were sentenced to death by a Special Military Court ... The sentence of death in respect of the above three convicts will be carried out in public. They will suffer death by being shot to death.”

A week later, Justice Zakiuddin Pal of the Lahore High Court rejected a writ petition filed by the three convicts who questioned the legality of their trial in a military court. The day for the execution was set for March 22 that year. The government, though, changed its mind about the mode of execution. The convicts were to be hanged rather than being shot.

Lahore’s local administration, working with jail officials and military authorities, made special arrangements for the public hanging. The execution needed to be carried out at a place where a large crowd could gather. It also required trained jail staff to be available at hand to administer death. There was also the additional risk that onlookers may erupt into political protests.

The gallows were set under a peepal tree just outside Shadman jail — right opposite where Tollinton Market stands today on the road that connects Ferozepur Road with Jail Road. Barbed wire was placed over a large area to keep the crowd away from the tree. Heavily armed security personnel stood guard along the barbed wire. Much before the convicts were brought to the site of their execution, half a million people had already gathered there. They were shouting in jubilation: “Islam zindabad! Zia zindabad!” The atmosphere was almost festive.

Just before 5:00 pm, the convicts were taken to the gallows together — their faces covered with black masks and their hands tied behind them. A hangman fixed the noose around their necks. Seconds later, he pulled a lever. Wooden planks under their feet gave way and they were suspended in air, the thick ropes tightening around their necks. The crowd burst into cries of, “Allah-o-Akbar!”

At 5:30 pm, Tara Masih, the chief hangman, checked the bodies of the convicts and declared all of them dead. The bodies were removed from the gallows as the crowd began to disperse.

Lights are switched off on the top floor of the Punjab Prisons Foundation on February 15 this year, but there is plenty of natural light streaming in through the windows facing west. Four men are working quietly at tables scattered across a large room. The only sound is of paper being pushed and shuffled.

An elderly man with a greying beard removes his glasses and holds them in mid-air as if they will help him revive his memories. He looks curiously around the room, as if to find clues for his mind to rush back 40 years. Then he gazes out of the window.

He witnessed the execution of Pappu’s murderers.

He walks down the stairs, steps out of the building – quiet, as though still trying to remember something – and goes over to a black wrought iron gate next door. The address on a silver nameplate outside the gate reads: 444 Shadman I. The old man points to a peepal tree about 25 feet inside the house. “That is where they built the gallows,” he says.

A flurry of public hangings followed that of Pappu’s killers. Here is just a sampling of the cases reported by the newspapers:

Two public hangings occurred on two consecutive days in the third week of January 1988. In the first, a man named Dost Muhammad was hanged in front of thousands of people at a stadium in Mianwali. He had killed a woman after attempting to rape her. The second hanging took place at a stadium in Sahiwal where a notorious robber by the name of Lalu was executed.

Similarly, on February 1 and February 2 that same year, two public hangings took place — one in Multan’s Qasim Bagh Stadium and the other in Faisalabad’s Dhobi Ghat ground.

Their impact on the crime rate remains largely undocumented. The government maintains no consolidated, countrywide statistics on crimes in any case. The Justice Project Pakistan, however, has sifted through newspaper archives and found that at least 11 children were raped in Pakistan between 1983 and 1992.

Additional research contributed by Aliyah Sahqani and Sarah Dara

The writer is a staffer at the Herald.

This story was originally published in the June 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.