Pakistan and the Death Penalty: Time to Call it Quits

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Pakistan and the Death Penalty: Time to Call it Quits

Post  Jennie on Tue Jul 22, 2008 1:26 pm

Pakistan and the Death Penalty: Time to Call it Quits


It was painful to think of Rehmat Shah Afridi on death row, haggard and ill.

I had worked with him at the English language daily paper he launched from Lahore in 1989, The Frontier Post, originally started from Peshawar, capital of his native North West Frontier Province (NWFP) in the mid-1980s. He was not highly educated but he had a liberal, progressive vision of independent media and had brought one of the country’s finest journalists, Aziz Siddiqui, on board as the editor.

'Shah Sahib,' as everyone respectfully and affectionately called Afridi, was a smiling, pleasant man in his early forties, immaculately dressed in crisp white shalwar kameez, the attire of baggy trousers and long tunic that is widely worn all over Pakistan. At the make-shift offices of The Frontier Post above a car repair workshop in Lahore's bustling city centre, he was a genial, down-to-earth presence into whose office anyone, from a lowly guard to a young reporter, could enter without an appointment and be offered a cup of tea – part of the egalitarian tribal code alien to class-conscious urban Pakistan. Shah Sahib countered rumors about his involvement in 'drug smuggling' by pointing out that his clan, the Afridi tribe, was legally engaged in cross-border trade with Afghanistan as part of an old agreement with the former British colonizers.

Aziz Siddiqui had by then joined the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) as co-director along with his close friend and fellow journalist I.A. Rehman who was Director of HRCP. The organization was among those that protested Afridi's arrest in 1999 on what most journalists believe to be trumped up charges of drug trafficking. After a district court on June 27, 2001 condemned Afridi to death by hanging, he spent the next 3 years on death row. There was sporadic news of him once he was convicted. One of his lawyers told me that he was terribly ill at one point and had lost much weight. The Lahore High Court on June 3, 2004 commuted his death sentence on the grounds that trafficking in hashish is not a capital crime. Still, he remained in Lahore's notorious Kot Lakhpat Jail for nearly a decade, with courts periodically turning down his bail applications, pleas to move him to a prison in Peshawar closer to his family and appeals for proper medical care. He was finally released on bail in May this year.

Afridi's case symbolizes a larger issue: the regular travesties of the justice system in Pakistan. He had the resources to hire well known, competent lawyers who got his death sentence converted to life imprisonment although even they could not manage to get him paroled or acquitted. Most of the 95,000 detainees crammed into Pakistan's over-crowded prisons have no such resources. Only about a third - 31,400 or so - have been convicted. A staggeringly large number of convicts are on death row - over 7,000, including almost 40 women.

Death row inmates "are either involved in lengthy appeals processes or awaiting execution after all appeals have been exhausted," noted the New York-based Human Rights Watch in a letter to the Pakistani prime minister on June 18th of this year. Appeals typically linger on for at least a decade, more often 2. The letter urged Pakistan to abolish the death penalty and until then, to at least sign a UN moratorium on any further executions. "The number of persons sentenced to death in Pakistan and executed every year is among the highest in the world, with a sharp increase in executions in recent years" (134 in 2007, up from 82 in 2006, 52 in 2005, and 15 in 2004).

Afridi's arrest in Lahore on the night of April 1, 1999 seemed like a bad joke. He was held without charge, beaten and tortured. Nothing surprising about that – in the absence of proper forensic equipment and training, most police cases rely on witness testimonies and confessions routinely obtained through torture and intimidation, as the HRCP documents in its monitoring reports every year.

The prime minister at the time of Afridi's arrest was Nawaz Sharif of whom The Frontier Post and its sister Urdu language publication the daily Maidan had been bitingly critical. The Sharif regime did not have a good track record with the media. They had earlier tried to squeeze the Jang group of newspapers (where I then worked), and prior to that, arrested Najam Sethi, Editor of weekly The Friday Times for making an 'unpatriotic' speech in 'enemy territory' (India). Sharif and his henchman, the all-powerful Saifur Rehman - through whom these actions were taken, backed down from both cases only after journalists in Pakistan created a major uproar, which was also taken up internationally.

The Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) had also protested Afridi's arrest and held public demonstrations for his release. International organizations like the Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also took up Afridi's case and appealed to the government for his release. "However, once he was convicted there was little we could have done," reflected Mazhar Abbas, General Secretary of the PFUJ when I asked him why there wasn't more public outrage about the case. He added that the newspaper editors' and owners' bodies had "backed out of a joint struggle because of professional rivalries, since The Frontier Post had the potential to challenge some of their publications. Otherwise, he would have been out of prison much earlier."

After army chief General Pervez Musharraf overthrew Sharif in a military coup of October 1999, there were hopes that Afridi would soon be freed. However, there were powerful forces ranged against him, including the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) officers who had arrested him (against whom his papers had written for their involvement in drug trafficking). It was not until after a civilian government came to power following the general elections of February 2008 that the provincial interior ministry ordered Afridi to be released on parole on May 24th, on the grounds of good behavior.

Faisal Siddiqi, a young advocate at the Sindh High Court in Karachi who often takes on pro bono cases, told me that those who are awarded capital punishment are usually "the poorest of the poor." Most of them are illiterate and have no resources or support. Along with the HRCP's Javed Burki, a grizzled older advocate, Faisal tries to help condemned prisoners in Karachi Central Prison. “In death penalty cases, the absence of an effective private counsel appears to be the difference between whether the death penalty is confirmed or set aside. Prisoners are condemned 'not for the worst crime but for the worst lawyer,'" he says, quoting a 1994 Yale Law Review study.

"Poor people lack access to competent counsel at both the trial and appellate stages," according to Human Rights Watch. "According to one study conducted in 2002, 71 % of condemned prisoners in the North West Frontier Province were uneducated and over half (51 %) had a monthly income below Rs 4,000 ($50 USD). The average fee for an appeal to the High Court in murder cases is around Rs 60,000 (about $900 USD). This creates an unequal system of justice, in which those with financial or political resources are able to obtain better legal services and avoid the death penalty."

Sometimes, they don't even get a lawyer. In one recent case, an illiterate army janitor called Zahid Masih was hanged in Peshawar Central Jail after a court martial, having been denied a civilian legal counsel, noted Human Rights Watch in its letter. 3 days later, the government announced (on the occasion of the late former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s birthday, June 21, 2008) that it was proposing to commute all death sentences to life imprisonment except for terrorists and those convicted of attempting to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf.

The federal cabinet approved the proposal on July 2nd. However, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has since taken suo moto notice of the proposal, perhaps in response to opposition from the right-wing lobby which argues that the move would go against the Constitution of Pakistan as well as the teachings of Islam. Until the matter is decided, the only ray of hope for Pakistan’s condemned prisoners is the Prime Minister’s proposed commutation.

Post-script: Rahat Dar, a photographer friend from The Frontier Post days emailed me a photograph of Shah Sahib on his release, garlanded with flowers, beaming, hugging his sons. He has said that he will apply for a re-trial in order to establish his innocence. "I was arrested after my paper published a report that the then director-general of the Anti-Narcotics Force and some army officers were involved in drug smuggling," he told journalists after his release. "I am not ashamed of my imprisonment as all the charges brought against me are false."

About the Author

Beena Sarwar is a journalist, writer, documentary filmmaker and artist based in Karachi, Pakistan. She started out as assistant editor for The Star Weekend, joined The Frontier Post as Features Editor, was Editor of weekly The News on Sunday, a weekly paper that she launched in Pakistan for The News International and has worked as an OpEd Editor for The News International. She has a Masters in Television Documentary (Goldsmiths College, University of London, 2001) and was a news and features producer at Geo TV before going to Harvard University as a Nieman Fellow (2005-06) and a Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (2006-07).

Beena freelances for various publications in Pakistan and abroad, including InterPress Service, and is on the editorial board for monthly Himal Southasian, Kathmandu. Her volunteer work and activism includes involvement with the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, the War Against Rape and the Women's Action Forum as well as the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.

(source: The Women's International Perspective)
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