Pakistan: Bloodbath on Death Row?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Asim Tanveer

Pakistan: Bloodbath on Death Row?


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.

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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.

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