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Lost juveniles

February 06, 2019

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The writer is executive director of Justice
The writer is executive director of Justice

MUHAMMAD Anwar, Muhammad Azam and Muhammad Iqbal have something in common, and it’s not just their first names. All three are inmates, scattered all over the country. All three have spent more time in prisons than out. All three have been recognised by the courts and government as juveniles. And all three have grown up on death row when all three of them should not have.

But perhaps the worst shared trait is that all three of them could be executed any day.

Three teenagers, who under Pakistan law, are not allowed to vote, drive a car or have CNICs, were considered ready to be hanged to death. Under 18 years old, yet mature enough to pay the ultimate price, ridding them of not only their future but any chance at redemption.

They were mere boys at the time of their convictions.

We cringe when we see barefoot, emaciated street children knock against our car windows. We were disgusted when videos of a girl being publicly whipped surfaced online in 2009. There is an intrinsic repulsion when we see children being dwarfed by a punishment that seems bigger than them.

In any asymmetrical conflict, there is an underdog. But in an ideal world, the state machinery would pick on enemies their own size. Children and teenagers are no match for the death penalty. This is why international and Pakistani law, under the former Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO) and current Juvenile Justice System Act, squarely and unequivocally prohibit capital punishment for juvenile offenders. So why are Anwar, Azam and Iqbal, mere boys at the time of their convictions, in danger of being hanged? Is it bureaucratic inefficiency or criminal apathy?

For the sake of our children, both must be addressed with the utmost urgency by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan.

After these teenagers were sentenced to death, the government of Pakistan enacted the JJSO, prohibiting the death penalty of juvenile offenders. And shortly after, in 2001, a presidential notification granted all juveniles who had been sentenced to death prior to the JJSO automatic remission of their sentences on the basis of an age determination inquiry.

In fact, Iqbal was included by the government of Punjab in a letter to the registrar as one of the juvenile offenders entitled to benefit from the notification. It could not be more clear.

But these age determination inquiries have taken entire lifetimes to take place, if at all. And these delays are dangerous. Iqbal’s death sentence was upheld by the Lahore High Court in March 2002 and in September of the same year; the Supreme Court denied his leave to appeal, leaving him at risk of imminent execution.

And because this age determination inquiry had still not taken place by 2017, the government of Pakistan nearly did kill him. A request for the issuance of his execution warrants was sent to the anti-terrorism court in Gujranwala. He was as good as dead.

It is a miracle that those requests were withdrawn after the National Commission on Human Rights took notice of the matter. His execution was stalled. But his right to an inquiry remained unfulfilled until March this year, only after Justice Project Pakistan filed a petition in the Lahore High Court. A firm directive befell the home department to conduct and conclude this inquiry within two weeks. It should not have taken this much, or this long.

But now, in what appears to be an attempt to wash their hands off of him, the home department has submitted a report stating that a mercy reference for commutation has been forwarded to the chief minister of Punjab. They have not explained why they are ignoring the Punjab government’s rules of business, according to which the execution of sentences — including reprieve, commutation and remission of sentences — falls squarely within the powers of the home department.

This uncharacteristic thoroughness is little more than a delaying tactic, and the chief minister must recognise it as such.

For Azam and Iqbal, their death sentences have remained not only despite being prohibited under the JJSO but also despite the fact that the victims’ families have forgiven them. Under our own laws, the compromise should have liberated the two. But under the problematic Anti-Terrorism Act that the two were bizarrely tried under, their juvenility does not seem to count. Neither do the wishes of the people the crime actually affected.

Collectively, Anwar, Azam and Iqbal have spent 56 years on death row. Yet, that hasn’t been enough time for the government of Pakistan to follow through on its own laws that entitle the three to relief.

This legal black hole that Anwar, Azam and Iqbal find themselves entrenched in undermines our own ability to protect our children. Where there is scope to save lives, there should be action. The state must not continue to close its eyes, wishing the problem away.

That is what children do.

The writer is executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.
Twitter: @SarahBelal

Published in Dawn, February 6th, 2019