A FEW weeks ago, Shafqat Hussein was told that he would be executed this week, on Aug 25th, news he had been waiting for for the past 16 years. Shafqat, along with the seven other prisoners scheduled for execution this week, has since been granted a reprieve, however slight while Pakistan awaits a meeting between its new prime minister and its outgoing president.
At this meeting it is expected that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Zardari will discuss the future of executions in Pakistan. From Shafqat’s case, we can see just how vital such discussions really are.
Shafqat was just 14 years old when he was arrested for the kidnap and murder of a young man who lived in the building where he worked. He has spent the last 16 years in a cramped and overcrowded cell, waiting to be told that it is time for him to die.
The children he went to school with have all built lives, developed careers, and started their own families. But Shafqat has remained exactly where he is, having served almost a life sentence already, he is now waiting for his second punishment — his execution — to take place.
For many years, Pakistan has provided procedures for children to be tried separately from adults. Like almost every other country in the world, Pakistan claims that juveniles cannot be sentenced to death under Pakistani law. Yet Shafqat was tried as an adult and sentenced to death.
Sadly, Shafqat’s case is not an exception to the rule. Figures published just one year before Pakistan’s five-year moratorium on executions came into force in 2008 suggest that at least 40 children have been awaiting execution in the death cells of Sargodha Jail alone.
Across the whole of Pakistan, children almost certainly make up a disturbingly large proportion of the 8,000 prisoners currently on Pakistan’s death row.
After Nawaz Sharif’s government first stated that it planned to resume executions in Pakistan, there was a dizzying and disturbing rush to see those words put into action.
The government argued that the resumption of executions was the key to addressing the prevalence of terrorism and violent crime and the security situation in Pakistan. Accordingly, officials suggested that each prisoner would have his case reviewed, to ensure that those convicted of the most serious crimes, including terrorist offences, would be the first in line for execution.
While the argument that resuming executions is the key to preventing violent crime is questionable on numerous grounds — most obviously the fact that countless studies have shown the death penalty has no deterrent effect on crime rates or extremism — Shafqat’s case also shows us that as it stands, the resumption of execution in Pakistan is unlikely to achieve even this dubious goal.
By executing someone like Shafqat the government does not send a clear message to those who would commit terrorist acts. Instead it shows only that it is unable to get its facts straight, and unable to abide by Pakistan’s own laws. Executions like this one will serve only to muddy the waters.
Looking a little deeper at Shafqat’s case, we can see that the failure to recognize his age was just one among the myriad failings in his arrest, defence, and trial:
When Shafqat met his court-appointed lawyer before his trial in the infamous anti-terrorism courts, the only advice his lawyer gave him was that these courts had been set up to punish defendants, not to acquit them. In his own lawyer’s eyes, Shafqat was already a condemned man.
For 40 days after the crime occurred, Shafqat had neither been accused nor arrested. During that time Shafqat went about his life normally, returning every day to the building where he worked and where the young man had died. No eyewitnesses or physical evidence have ever been produced which link Shafqat to the crime.
When Shafqat’s case came before the high court on appeal, the judge concluded that the only evidence against Shafqat was his own confession. A confession that was made after nine days of torture, intimidation, and humiliation by police. As he describes it: “They could make you say a deer was an elephant.” Yet the judge also concluded that the conviction should stand.
The absolute prohibition on the execution of juvenile defendants is universally accepted. Yet even without taking Shafqat’s age into account, there are too many reasons for his scheduled execution to cause us concern.
Doubtless many of the other prisoners who have received a brief reprieve from execution this week could tell us similar stories of mistreatment and injustice. In the face of facts like these one can only hope that this brief reprieve turns into something longer, while a proper system for case by case review is implemented.
If instead the rush to execute is resumed at the promised rate, the questions will always be left: how many of those to be sent to the gallows may be innocent? And how many may even be children?
The writer is a case worker for Reprieve, a legal charity that works against the death penalty across the world.