Let him come home

January 25, 2018

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IF 52-year-old Zulfiqar Ali’s death sentence had been carried out in Indonesia in July 2016, it would have been execution by firing squad. A 27-point guide details how he would have been tied to a pole in a sitting, kneeling or standing position. A doctor would mark out the location of his heart in black, on his simple, clean and white prison-supplied clothes.

Twelve shooters, nine blanks, three minutes for the spiritual leader to ‘calm’ the prisoner before the trigger is pulled. A sword is literally drawn, brandished and swung to start the firing.

If he had survived the hail of bullets, or had it been botched (which in all likelihood it would have) he would have been shot in the temple above his ear immediately.

The nine blanks are there so that none of the shooters can be sure that they fired the fatal shot. This is how they pretend they did not partake in the taking of a life. It could have been anyone of them, they think.

The death penalty machinery is nothing, if not prepared.

Pakistan must raise Zulfiqar Ali’s case with President Widodo.

But no amount of preparation, pomp or ceremony could have primed Zulfiqar’s family for what happened to him. The father of five has spent 14 years on death row, in and out of Indonesian prisons and hospitals, trying to prepare himself for a moment he should have never had to face. Having been implicated in a crime only because of a torture-induced confession, Zulfiqar was denied a lawyer for a month and received next to no translation assistance during his trial. No one from the Pakistan embassy was contacted. There is overwhelming evidence of his innocence.

The noise that Justice Project Pakistan, the media and his family made in his home country was heard just in time. The then prime minister Nawaz Sharif intervened himself after public support for Zulfiqar was galvanised through the media. Zulfiqar was granted a last-minute reprieve, as testament to the power of diplomatic representation when done right. It was unclear why or for how long, but Zulfiqar was spared — albeit in constant fear of being served another execution warrant.

But as he waited, death came for Zulfiqar from within his own body. Fourteen years ago, he was brutalised by the Indonesian police in hopes of gaining a confession that would support their paper-thin case against him. He was kicked, punched, threatened to be dragged by a moving car. When he passed out from the pain, they rushed him into emergency surgery. The torture irrevocably damaged his liver and kidneys. In a cruel twist, his family had to bear the expenses.

In December 2017, Zulfiqar’s physician told him he had stage four liver cancer. His underlying medical conditions are unlikely to help him find a donor. Three months is all he has. Six, if he can afford the medicines.

So far, his medical expenses have cost him almost $40,000. Part of this has been generously paid for by Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The remainder has come from the sale of his childhood home in Lahore. His mother now lives with her sister-in-law. This has not been enough. A $5,000 pain management medicine remains out of his reach. The same pills cost a fraction of that in his home country.

President Joko Widodo is visiting Pakistan on Friday, Jan 26. His Pakistani counterpart has arranged an elaborate banquet for his arrival. President Widodo will be addressing our parliament. He will be accompanied by a large business delegation, and will also meet Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

So there are, no doubt, plenty of moments available to the Pakistani government to raise Zulfiqar’s case with President Widodo. The overwhelming fact of Zulfiqar’s innocence, the violation of his fundamental rights during trial, the cruel and degrading treatment he has been subjected to, the life that has been stolen from him can all be talked about. It is an important conversation, one that will set the tone for how Pakistanis take care of their own abroad, one that might potentially bring Zulfiqar home.

President Widodo displayed wisdom, patience and flexibility when he spared Zulfiqar’s life in July 2016. The Pakistani government signalled to the world that its citizens and their rights are sacred and non-negotiable. That when there is a will, lives can be and are saved. There is no one who comes up short by showing mercy to a dying man, by sending him home to his family where he may live out the rest of his days not confined to a prison cell.

It’s a 10-hour flight from Jakarta to Lahore, but I sincerely hope that Zulfiqar will be boarding it soon. Fourteen years too late, but still — soon.

The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @SarahBelal

Published in Dawn, January 25th, 2018