The clock is moving inexorably towards half an hour past Monday midnight. This will be the killing hour for Abdul Basit. On death row for seven years in Faisalabad, Pakistan, this is to be his date with the gallows.
There may be doubts about his case: Did his trial even approximate due process? But all that is in the past now. Once before this, recently, he has come within 24 hours of execution. Then, he cheated the noose but it seems that this time around he will not be so lucky.
Our colleagues on the ground in Pakistan have been in the Supreme Court earlier today. Abdul Basit had been fit and well when first he went to jail in 2008. But he contracted TB meningitis, and when the authorities failed to treat him, he was permanently paralysed from the waist down.
The technical legal issues before the court today were twofold - first, had he not been punished enough, no matter what the merits of the case? Second, would hanging him from a wheelchair be consistent with anything we might deem civilised?
One justice had seemed sympathetic; the other two justices, less so. They concluded that the fact that Abdul Basit is now unable to move his legs at all, or even control his bowels, is irrelevant to the government's right to kill him. The rules on how to execute are designed to protect the right to a dignified death and this should be sufficient to allow Basit's hanging to proceed.
The written order comes out at 4:18 pm London time, just eight hours and 12 minutes before the allotted time. The word "DISMISSED" is writ large. It seems that al this work has gone to waste - but is there a faint window of hope? The Court has penned a subtle order: the execution may go ahead, it says, but "we do not feel chary, even for a while, of observing that the Superintendent of Jail and other staff assigned the job of executing the condemned prisoner shall comply with the relevant rules."
Just as Shylock could have his pound of flesh, so the jailer may take revenge upon Abdul Basit. But just as Shylock would himself face death if he took one jot of blood, so perhaps the jailer will fear judicial wrath if somehow the rules fail to provide for a clean execution of a paraplegic man.
The Pakistan Prison Rules require precise measurements to be taken from standing so that the risk of decapitation or strangulation is mitigated; no such measurement can be taken from Abdul Basit. The Rules require that the condemned man mount the gallows; Abdul Basit cannot get out of his wheelchair. The Rules require that he stand on the trapdoor as the noose is placed around his neck and the sack cuts off his final sight of the world; Abdul Basit cannot do this.
Tale of vengeance
That Shakespeare's cautionary tale of vengeance might provide an avenue to save Abdul Basit's life is a faint hope, but with eight hours of life left to him, any hope is better than none at all. How many times have I asked judges and governors, if they have decided to spurn mercy, to withhold their judgement until the final minutes, to allow false hope to edge out despair?
But now we are powerless, just like Abdul Basit himself. Our Reprieve team is in England, thousands of miles from the unfolding drama. For us, day has long since passed into night.
In Faisalabad, in a few too-short hours, the sun will be rising. Abdul Basit is to die with the Pakistan dawn. Our colleagues in Pakistan are at the jail.
It is 22:16. Just two hours and twelve minutes left now. Updates come through by text message: at midnight, the magistrate will arrive to oversee the hanging. He will be given a copy of the Supreme Court judgment and remind him that it is his to interpret, his to enforce, and on his head if the Prison Rules are not scrupulously followed.
But for now it is merely a matter of waiting. Inside the Jail, Abdul Basit must wait alone.
It is 23:53. The Magistrate should be there in minutes. A text message comes through - updates on a conversation with the Jail medical officer. He has a role to play to supervise the execution. He knows what could happen if it goes wrong, that Basit's head could be ripped from his body. The doctor does not want to see this happen.
It is midnight. The magistrate is already inside the jail. The lawyers negotiate to get access.
A few minutes later, the message comes back out. The Magistrate wants to speak with them. At thousands of miles distance, it is an ambivalent sign. He is completing a formality. He will appease them and order the hangman to begin, we think.
It is half past midnight. The fierce buzz of the text message.
"Still waiting." As we wait in England, all our colleagues can do is to watch the prison walls in Faisalabad.
The minutes go by.
What will the news be? Has Caesar, in his 21st century Coliseum, raised his thumb up for mercy, or down for death?
1 o'clock slowly approaches us. I have been there many times, at the dark hour of death. The downward pressure of inhumanity is suffocating. My irritating heart complaint is acting up again, and I have to turn to my medication. It takes 20 drawn-out minutes to kick in.
It is half past 1. Surely by now the witnesses to the hanging should be filing out? Still nothing to report.
Nearly 2. The urgent buzz startles me again. "It's getting very light in Pakistan. But no one able to confirm yet."
2:15. 2:30. 2:49.
Word comes out that the magistrate, the medical officer and the jail authorities have finally agreed that the execution cannot be carried out without violating the prison rules. They have notified the Punjab government, who must now amend the rules to allow the execution of a paraplegic man if they are to see Basit executed.
Yet still Abdul Basit is all alone. These are not legal visiting hours.
For us, so far away, and for JPP, there is celebration. But the new day has come, and it is back to the trenches. One battle has been won, but the war for Abdul Basit's life will continue. The truce will be counted in hours. And then the machinery of death may be gearing up once again to try to hang him and his wheelchair.
Source: International Business Times, Clive Stafford Smith, Sept. 25, 2015
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