Footprints: Lives and a death on hold

Published January 13, 2015
SHAFQAT Hussain’s mother holding the only picture of her imprisoned son, whose execution on Jan 14 has been halted.—Photo by writer
SHAFQAT Hussain’s mother holding the only picture of her imprisoned son, whose execution on Jan 14 has been halted.—Photo by writer

WALKING through narrow pathways zigzagging steeply up from the main road, I clamber up the hillside on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad having no clue what awaits me at the place where the family of Shafqat Hussain, whose execution has been halted by the government, has been residing for some time.

It is a shabby two-room place, overlooking Chehla Bandi neighbourhood which is along the Neelum Valley road. As I and a distant cousin of Shafqat reach close to the tin-roofed structure, we see an elderly woman standing in the courtyard looking desolate and bereft. From behind appears a girl in her mid-twenties but looks much older. Inside in a room is lying a visually-challenged and hearing-impaired old man. From an adjacent room a young man, putting on a denim jacket, rushes out to receive us.

Know more: Execution of death row prisoner Shafqat Hussain halted

They are Shafqat’s family members: his parents and two of his six siblings. They have been living at this place for a monthly rent of Rs2,500 for the past three weeks, following the deadly attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar when they were told that Shafqat could be hanged anytime as Pakistan had lifted a six-year moratorium on executions.

The family belongs to Kalalot, a small hamlet of fewer than 300 houses near the town of Kel, in the upper belt of the Neelum Valley, some 190 kilometres north-east of Muzaffarabad. Farming and cattle rearing used to be their means of livelihood, in one of the most underprivileged areas of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, but now they have no means to earn their living.

Also read: Would we hang a 14-year-old 'terrorist'?

Most of their land and cattle have been sold to meet travel expenses to and from Karachi over the past decade, after Shafqat was arrested in 2004 for kidnapping and killing a seven-year-old boy from an apartment building in Karachi where he was working as a guard. In September the same year, Shafqat, said to be 14 years old at the time, was sentenced to death by an antiterrorism court. His murder charge was reduced to ‘involuntary manslaughter’ on appeal, but the terrorism charges against him were not quashed.

“We came to know about his arrest and conviction much later, because in those days there were poor means of communication in our area,” recalls Manzoor, Shafqat’s elder brother.

Initially, the family borrowed some money from a relative and sent Gulzaman, the eldest sibling to Karachi. He met Shafqat in prison and returned home after one month, with news about his conviction. “When Gulzaman asked Shafqat what he had done, he started screaming. Such was the impact of police torture on him,” Manzoor adds.

According to Justice Project Pakistan, a law firm specialising in human rights cases and representing Shafqat in courts, Shafqat confessed only after being tortured by police during nine days of interrogation. In a statement, the UK-based human rights organisation Reprieve also said that Pakistani police had tortured the juvenile into confessing to the crime.

“In Pakistan, police torture can force you into confessing any murder, even that of the first prime minister of Pakistan, even if you’re not born at the time,” says Raza Ali Khan, a senior advocate in Muzaffarabad.

With his parents and sister seated alongside him, Manzoor recalls how the penalty has devastated their lives. “My father is paralysed. He cannot hear and see properly. Ever since my mother learnt that Shafqat was condemned to death, she has been disturbed mentally, suffering from amnesia.”

Shafqat’s mother is holding the only picture of her imprisoned son and tears start rolling down her cheeks as soon as I approach her. As I try to take a picture, Manzoor asks her not to cry. She repeatedly wipes her face. The scenes are heart-rending.

An antiterrorism court in Sindh issued Shafqat’s death warrant on Jan 3 and he was to be executed on Jan 14. His family was bracing for the worst, but then came the good news: the interior ministry halted his execution ‘for the time being’. On Jan 5, federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced the government was halting his impending execution. Two days later, the minister said a decision regarding Shafqat’s age had to be made for which a DNA test would be conducted.

Nevertheless, the family’s ordeal is not over. “Unless a clear and final decision comes, we will remain on tenterhooks,” Manzoor muses. “But we are satisfied that he is not a killer or a terrorist.”

He points out that Shafqat has already spent over a decade in prison, which is equivalent to a life sentence, and argues that this should suffice for his release.

While sitting there, I also speak over the phone to Gulzaman, who has been in Karachi since 2004 to stay close to his brother, doing odd jobs to meet expenses. “I met Shafqat six days ago. He is hopeful that Allah will end his predicament,” he says.

“We need nothing. Once he is reunited with us, we will return to our village. We will not stay in the cities for a single day,” says Manzoor.

Published in Dawn January 13th , 2015

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