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

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Pakistan: Waiting for the hangman

At least 8,000 prisoners in Pakistan are simply waiting to die, whiling away an average of 11.41 years until they are either acquitted or executed

434 people have been hanged since the moratorium on death penalty was lifted in Pakistan. But the number of lives destroyed far exceeds this figure. When the state makes the decision to execute someone, it wrecks the lives of everyone who loves them.

The criminal justice system in Pakistan requires waiting. Waiting for things to move forward, waiting for verdicts, waiting for justice, which often isn't, as promised, served.

And at least 8000 prisoners in Pakistan are simply waiting to die, whiling away an average of 11.41 years until they are either acquitted or executed. Either way, whoever ends up on Pakistan's death row might as well get comfortable. They could be there a while.

Justice Project Pakistan has had clients that have spent well over 1/2 their lives as prisoners. Some were arrested before their 18th birthdays, making them in the eyes of the law, juveniles. Aftab Bahadur entered his prison cell as a 15-year-old, wide-eyed teenager but left as 38-year-old in a body bag. Ansar Iqbal had spent 29 of his 43 years on this earth in prison before he was executed in June 2015. The time that Zulfikar Ali Khan spent on death row was enough to allow him to complete 33 diplomas and educate 50 other prisoners. In the 18 years, he was confined to a prison, the Government of Pakistan scheduled and postponed his execution 22 times.

All 3 of them did not deserve to be there.

This week, 'Intezaar' was staged by Ajoka Theatre Pakistan, Highlight Arts and Complicite, which offered its audience an insight into the lives that people like Aftab, Ansar and Zulfikar led locked in a prison. Their miserable existence contrasted heavily with their resilience and courage to inject some purpose into their otherwise meaningless lives.

There is a prisoner who can paint, another who can compose and sing, yet another who spends all his times studying and teaching others. But other inmates are there in violation of Pakistani and international laws: the juvenile offenders, the physically handicapped and mentally ill.

While there was some degree of artistic license at play here, none of these stories was fiction. When the play depicted the executioner attempting to hang a man paralysed from the waist down, they were talking about our client, Abdul Basit. The difficulty and inherent wrongness of hanging a man unable to stand was one experienced in actual life 2 years ago.

When the play showed us the story of a mute woman, prone to hysteria, it was not an embellishment but again, retelling of facts. Kanizan Bibi was held for 11 days in police custody before being brought to the magistrate to confess. She was tortured so brutally and so relentlessly; she was hospitalised while in detention. Like her theatrical counterpart, Kanizan has not spoken a word in years, as a direct result of the trauma the torture put her through. 2017 marks her 27th year on death row.

The visual depiction of the very real consequences of our justice system forced the audience to confront what it really means to support the death penalty in Pakistan. And many turned away in shame, cringing that such violence is being committed in their name.

Conditions on Pakistan's death row expose prisoners to a high risk of the 'death row syndrome,' a psychological disorder that inmates on death row are susceptible to when they are isolated. Suicidal tendencies, psychotic delusions and heightened anxiety (as a result of knowing of their imminent death) can cause prisoners to go insane. The wait to march to the gallows only exacerbates this.

Especially vulnerable are juveniles and individuals with mental illness or intellectual disabilities. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights considers the prolonged detention of the prisoner; the physical conditions of imprisonment; and the psychological impact of the incarceration on the prisoner as inhuman treatment. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has acknowledged that "the psychological tension created by prolonged detention on death row may affect persons in different degrees." Critical to this last factor are "personal circumstances of the prisoner, especially his age and mental state at the time of the offence."

These experiences of prisoners on death row are a testament to the need for a comprehensive and urgent response from the international community. As Pakistan heads for its first of many UN reviews this year, this must be kept in mind.

We have woken up to so many stories in the last year alone, of people being acquitted after they have been hanged, or dying in prisons waiting for their appeals. And for all of them, the wait has been long, illegal and utterly destructive.

Source: Daily Times, Opinion, Rimmel Mohydin, April 2017. The writer works with Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm based in Lahore.

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