"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Monday, May 16, 2016

Pakistan: Who are we hanging?

Abdul Basit
Abdul Basit
Abdul Basit's story is the perfect representation of the worst flaws of the legal and prison system in the country. The progression of his case and its inherent injustices read like a script of the criminal justice system's inability to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, the poor and the disabled. Abdul Basit is a paraplegic prisoner in Pakistan's 6000 strong death row. Despite being paralysed from the waist-down, the Government of Pakistan has come within hours of executing him 3 times. The Government's conveyer belt of executions since the lifting of the moratorium in December 2014 has claimed the lives of 374 prisoners - only 1 in every 10 of who were charged with offences related to terrorism. Last week, the Government informed the Superior Courts of Pakistan that clemency has not been granted to even a single prisoner on death row and over 444 mercy petitions for clemency have been rejected since December 2014. It is, therefore, evident that the Government's execution policy against its citizens has no room for any mercy, not even for a paralysed man.

Abdul Basit's case, like those of many others on death row, was defined by collusion between the police and the influential relatives of the man he was accused of murdering. Abdul Basit maintained his innocence till the very end of his trial. However, both his appeals were rejected by the Superior Courts, and he was awarded the death sentence. During his time in Faisalabad Central Jail, Abdul Basit's health began deteriorating rapidly. Despite repeatedly complaining of severe headaches and high fever, he was permanently ignored by the staff at Faisalabad jail. His mother reported that her once able son would scream in pain and bang his head against the wall. The jail authorities were well aware that Basit was displaying symptoms of Tuberculosis Meningitis (TB), having dealt with similar outbreaks in the past. However, they refused to take any steps despite constant pleas from his family. To avoid his spreading the disease to other inmates, jail authorities rather than getting him the necessary treatment confined him to a solitary cell. It was only when Basit lost consciousness from the severe pain, that he was transferred to the District Head Quarter Hospital of Faisalabad.

Abdul Basit fell into coma for a duration of 3 weeks. His mother was finally called by the jail authorities and was informed that her son had contracted Tuberculosis Meningitis (TB). Sheer negligence by those in charge of regulating the prisoners had caused him permanent damage. His medical records revealed that he had become paralyzed from the waist down and would suffer life-long repercussions of the decline in effectiveness of his spinal cord. It was also learnt that he will never be able to walk again.Initially, several medical practitioners classified his chances of recovery as 'minimal'. The Medical Board that assembled to examine his condition on the 29th of July 2015 unequivocally concluded that he was likely to remain bed-ridden for the remainder of his life. However, his latest medical report stating the final opinion of another Medical Board convened at Faisalabad Jail on the 24th of December, 2015, that chances for future recovery cannot be ruled out.

Abdul Basit's legal team at Justice Project Pakistan has repeatedly made the legal assertion that his life cannot be taken away if heed is to be paid to the Pakistan Prison Rules, which has even been acknowledged by the Superior Courts. It is no secret that Rule 107(iv) of the Prison Rules 1978 grants mercy from execution in cases of ill-health. Such an execution, if it materializes, would be nothing but a bungled travesty. Even Basit's mother has painfully asserted the gloomy notion that her son is now only half human since half of his body is already paralyzed and non-functional. The Government has thrice attempted to send him to the gallows in the past year, with the last execution being halted by no less of an office than the presidency.

Abdul Basit's mother has repeatedly said that the years her son has spent in jail are no less than death for him and his family. Abdul Basit entered prison a free and able man. Since then he has lost his independence and his ability to walk. He spends his days lying on the floor of a prison cell - dependent on jail staff for basic functions like going to the bathroom. Does Basit really deserve to be executed? The state that is legally and morally responsible for the rights of all of its citizens needs to ask itself whether these measures and their adverse repercussions are truly achieving the publically claimed objective of fighting terrorism. Article 45 of the Constitution of Pakistan grants the President of Pakistan the power to grant mercy to prisoners facing execution. Basit's family, lawyers and the international and local human rights community has repeatedly written to the President asking him to exercise this power, but to no avail. The Government of Pakistan by this exercise of mercy needs to demonstrate to its people that it is the true repository of their fundamental rights and welfare.

Source: The Nation, Azam Tarar, May 16, 2016. The writer is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan

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