KARACHI/MUZAFFAR­ABAD: A condemned prisoner, said to be a juvenile when convicted, narrowly escaped being sent to the gallows on Thursday morning after the man’s family and civil society activists made impassioned appeals to the President for clemency in his case.

On Wednesday, with hours to go before his sentence to have been carried out, the government announced that it had decided to suspend Shafqat Hussain’s sentence for an indefinite period.

The announcement came as a relief to members of civil society and activists from Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) — a legal aid NGO — who had campaigned for Shafqat and had collected evidence proving that he was a minor when he was sentenced to death.

Presidency, interior ministry intervene, delay Shafqat Hussain’s execution

Shahab Siddiqi, a spokesman for JPP, told Dawn that they had handed over a fresh mercy petition on Shafqat’s behalf to an official from the Presidency.

He said that they had heard from various sources and spoken to Shafqat’s brother who confirmed that the prison authorities in Karachi had conveyed news of the postponement to the family.

Before the announcement, Sindh Information Minister Sharjeel Memon, speaking in a late-night interview with a private TV channel, had said that the Sindh government had appealed to the President to stay Shafqat Hussain’s execution. The spokesperson for the Sindh government added that the Sindh government would be working to stay Shafqat’s sentence in the hours leading up to his execution.

Almost simultaneously, President Mamnoon Hussain told another private TV channel that he was in touch with the interior ministry over the issue.

He said that new facts had come to light in Shafqat’s case and the government would not allow any innocent person to be put to death, the president said.

He said that he had instructed the interior minister to do all that can be done in the matter.

Case history

Shafqat Hussain was sentenced to death by a Karachi anti-terrorism court (ATC) in Sept 2004 for kidnapping and murdering a seven-year-old boy.

The Sindh High Court set aside the conviction under the charge of premeditated murder and sentenced him to a five year-term for accidental murder. However, the court still upheld the death penalty for the offence of kidnapping for ransom.

The prisoner’s appeal was dismissed by the Supreme Court in Oct 2007 while a review petition was also turned down by the apex court two months later.

The president dismissed a mercy petition filed in July 2012.

Earlier, on March 17, the interior minister had said that the Sindh government had turned down a proposal to conduct a DNA test to determine the condemned man’s age. Jail records suggested that the convict was not a juvenile when he was incarcerated, he added.

Shafqat’s conviction was based mainly on his own confession before a magistrate, which was allegedly extracted after nine days of torture in police custody.

If it is established that Shafqat was indeed a juvenile at the time of his conviction, the ruling would be in contravention of the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO), promulgated in 2000 to ensure that offenders under the age of 18 get special treatment and are not awarded the death penalty.

Impassioned plea

Meanwhile, Shafqat’s mother and family made an impassioned plea to the government and the judiciary to stop his execution.

“For God’s sake, don’t deprive me of my Shafqat… He is my last child... Please don’t snatch him from me,” his mother Makhni Begum said at a press conference on Wednesday.

During the presser, she showed reporters a birth certificate issued in December last year by a town committee in his native village, located just along the Line of Control in the Neelum District of Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK).

According to the certificate, Shafqat was born in Dec 1991, making him 13-years-old in 2004, when the crime was committed.

Flanked by Shafqat’s siblings – his sister Sumera and brother Manzoor – a distant cousin and JPP representative Yasir Shahbaz, the family said they had been unable to visit Shafqat in Karachi, after he was “implicated in the murder case and forced to confess to a crime he did not commit”.

Manzoor lamented that despite an announcement by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, no one had contacted the family to verify his age.

In a statement issued on Wednesday, the European Union also expressed concerns over the rate at which Pakistan was executing death row convicts, especially those not sentenced on terror charges.

The EU called on Pakistan to “reinstitute the moratorium and to respect all its international obligations, in particular the principle of fair trial. The EU also recalls that Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a party, specifically prohibits the use of the death sentence for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age”.

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2015

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