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Condemned unheard: On death row abroad

Today, over 11,000 Pakistanis ─ many of them migrants in search of better opportunities ─ are detained in jails abroad.
Updated Mar 12, 2019 12:30pm

While successive governments have looked towards remittances to boost the economy, these tales capture the agony and helplessness of those who have had a run-in with the law in a foreign country.


Zulfiqar Ali, Indonesia

Wrapped in a green hospital gown, a plastic tube inserted into his nostrils, Zulfiqar Ali knew that his last days were upon him. He had arrived in Batu Prison on Nusakambangan Island — darkly referred to as ‘Execution Island’ by the Javanese — with dim prospects of survival. In May 2018, his wan-complexioned face seemed expressionless, lying still and frozen on the hospital bed.

Spending 13 years on death row had left Ali stationed in perennial limbo since 2004, unsure about the passage of time. In 2016, Indonesia had ordered Ali to face death by a firing squad after convicting him of drug possession, despite a dearth of evidence. Back then, with a mere 72 hours remaining until Ali faced his executioners, Pakistan’s then prime minister Nawaz Sharif had directly intervened, taking the rare step of imploring the Indonesian government to grant clemency to a Pakistani migrant worker.

However, almost two years later, there was no grand intercession by the government of Pakistan when Ali’s health began to fail. At 54 years old, Ali heaved his last breath, succumbing to the last stages of liver cancer in the intensive care unit of the jail’s hospital. Despite the plea by the Pakistani prime minister, his name was still firmly lodged in Indonesia’s database of drug convicts when he died.


In 2001, Ali had left behind work in a textile mill on the plains of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest and most fertile province, and arrived in Jakarta to stake out a new fortune. He had settled down, married an Indonesian woman named Siti, and fathered five children. By all accounts, his life was on the upswing, propelled forward by a job as a marketing manager at a friend’s company. In his free time, he tended to a side business, supplying Islamic garments manufactured in countries such as Pakistan to the Indonesian market. Fortune seemed to favour him in these early days, and he was able to acquire three homes spread between Pakistan and Indonesia.

Despite his rapidly increasing prosperity and blossoming familial roots in Indonesia, Ali’s social and cultural ties to the country were still somewhat tenuous. His command of the Bahasa Indonesian language remained weak, and he largely fraternised with South Asians. It was through these circles that he made the ill-fated acquaintance of an Indian migrant worker named Gurdip Singh in Jakarta.

In November 2004, this connection would cost him gravely when Singh was stopped by Indonesian authorities at Jakarta’s main international airport for carrying 300 grammes of heroin, a crime punishable by death in the country.

At the time, Ali, then 38, was staying at his house in Bogor, enjoying the cooler temperatures of a city set against the once-volcanic Mount Salak. Ali had no awareness of Singh’s movements at the airport, nor of the drugs he had in his possession, his lawyers say. That did not impact the ensuing events. Policemen soon knocked on Ali’s door in Bogor and handcuffed him, claiming that his name had surfaced during their questioning of Singh. The police believed he was involved in the drug smuggling.

Despite proclaiming his innocence, Ali was hauled away by officials to an unknown house, where he was beaten by the police over three days to extract a confession. During the thrashings, the police — who had entered Ali’s home without a warrant — said they would kill him if he did not sign the confession paper. Fearful of what might result if he did not assent to their demand, Ali placed his signature on the paper, effectively signing his life away.

He ended up spending 17 days at a police hospital for kidney and stomach surgery. According to Ali’s lawyers, he never recovered from some of the injuries sustained during the torture.


Although Ali was alarmed at Singh’s accusation that he was involved in drug smuggling, there was one scrap of news that brightened his mood: He learned that in a court affidavit, Singh had recanted his earlier statements that the drugs were Ali’s, confessing that the police had encouraged him to list someone else’s name in order to reduce his own punishment.

However, despite Singh’s statement, Ali was not freed; he still had to stand trial. Ali stumbled through the courtroom proceedings with a dim grasp of the Bahasa Indonesian and English being spoken, almost entirely reliant on his interpreter’s translations. His mother tongue was Urdu, and both English and Bahasa Indonesian were second languages Ali had little limited mastery of. Adding to his problems was the fact that he did not have a lawyer. A month after his trial had started in 2005, he received a lawyer, but by then it was too late. Despite a lack of evidence showing that Ali had brought any drugs to Indonesia, the Tangerang District Court sentenced him to death in June 2005.

Ali was told that the punishment would be execution, but he could serve a lesser punishment of 10 to 15 years in prison if he simply paid a 400 million Indonesian rupiah bribe, equivalent to US$27,762 at the time. Ali refused to pay the extortionate sum, declaring himself innocent.

Ali filed an appeal two months later which was rejected the following year. Despite the setback, he nonetheless pursued his case all the way to the Supreme Court, which struck down his request to overturn the punishment in 2008, upholding his original death sentence.

In 2010, after news surfaced that Ali faced trial without a lawyer and with subpar translation assistance, Indonesia’s ex-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered an inquiry into Ali’s case. The inquiry declared that Ali was innocent and, going one step further, acknowledged that he had suffered custodial abuse at the hands of the police. Despite this good news, it did not change Ali’s fate — the inquiry’s findings never made their way into the courtroom proceedings.

In April 2013, Ali filed a case review to re-examine the case. Noting that Ali had no prior drug history or convictions, lawyers argued that his case had multiple deficiencies — not only had he been operating without a proper interpreter, there was no evidence that he had committed the crime, a particularly egregious oversight in light of the severity of the punishment.

However, his case review was rejected on unknown grounds and, in July 2016, Ali received the dreaded order: in 72 hours, the Indonesians would execute him by firing squad. By August, the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), an NGO assisting Pakistanis on death row, launched a vigorous media campaign that drew attention to Ali’s case. Through the JPP’s efforts, the case reached the highest echelons of power in Pakistan, prompting then prime minister Nawaz Sharif to call upon Indonesia to halt the execution.

The Indonesians responded favourably, swiftly placing a stay on the execution. However, they did not acquit him of the charges and he still faced the death penalty at a later date. Part of the problem was that the Tangerang District Court still deemed Ali’s confession — obtained through police torture — valid in the court of law. His lawyers were outraged; not only were there no drugs found on Ali when he was taken by the police, the relatively minor quantity of heroin Singh had been carrying when he implicated Ali simply did not match the gravity of the punishment. In other cases, heroin possession of far smaller quantities had yielded milder punishments.

Complicating matters was Ali’s health which, by December 2017, had deteriorated entirely. That month, Ali’s physician informed him that he was suffering from stage-4 terminal liver cancer which doctors had no cure for.

The likelihood of him dying, either on death row or in the hospital, was now almost a foregone conclusion.

His lawyers pleaded with the Indonesian government to grant him clemency and release him for medical reasons, repeatedly underlining the fact that authorities had no evidence that Ali had carried heroin into Indonesia in the first place.

Importantly, Ali gravely needed a liver transplant, though the operation was expected to fail. Mounting medical costs threatened his physical health, as doctors discovered additional illnesses ranging from cirrhosis of the liver to diabetes. To pay the bills, Ali and his family sold his houses, and eventually Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid more than US$37,000 to cover his medical bills.

This did not solve the larger imbroglio. Medical staff told Ali that at best, he only had a few months to live, and those would likely be spent in a jail hospital.


A faint hope arose in January 2018, as an opportunity for an appeal opened up. The country’s highest authority, the Indonesian president, was one of the few officials empowered to pardon a prisoner, and Indonesian president Joko Widodo was making a rare state visit to Pakistan, during which he planned to sign memoranda of understanding with his Pakistani counterpart and even address the parliament in Islamabad.

According to then foreign minister Khawaja Asif, during Widodo’s highly-publicised meeting with Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the prime minister directly implored Widodo to release Ali on medical grounds.

For its part, the JPP, the main NGO working on Ali’s case, swiftly seized the opportunity to organize a media campaign around Zulfiqar Ali’s case. The appeals seemed to work; Widodo himself promised to reconsider the case during his visit, a drastic reversal from a man who had once told Indonesian media he would never grant clemency requests for drug trafficking.

Widodo ‘had declared war against drug traffickers, pointing to the increasing number of drug abuse victims,’ said Justice Minister Yasonna. ‘[He] was not planning to abolish capital punishment anytime soon, particularly in cases of drug trafficking,’ according to a December 2014 press release.

Yet Widodo’s promise remained unfulfilled. This might have owed partly to the fact that it was never followed up on by Pakistan’s own foreign ministry, says Rimmel Mohydin, the former head of communications at the JPP.


Today, more than 11,000 Pakistanis are detained in jails around the world, many being migrants grasping at economic opportunities abroad to escape political and financial instability at home. The country lacks a consular protection policy for citizens detained abroad, a fact that has major ramifications for migrant workers.

Typically, a consular protection policy establishes a range of services to citizens facing distress or detention abroad, ranging from legal representation to visits to jails by consular staff. “It appears that the government has adopted a policy of ‘no policy’ on overseas Pakistanis,” said Lahore High Court’s chief justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, during a 2017 court hearing of a lawsuit filed by the families of migrant workers on death row.

In Ali’s case, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was alerted by the JPP to his ordeal. Given his ill health, both the NGO and his family asked Indonesia to repatriate Ali, but this never materialised. According to the JPP, the Pakistani government’s negligence played a role in Ali’s death in Indonesia. Under Article 4(1) of the Pakistani constitution, the government holds a responsibility to protect citizens, which the foreign ministry patently failed to carry out by not advocating for Ali’s repatriation.

Indeed, although the interventions of both prime ministers Abbasi and Sharif demonstrated Pakistan’s capacity to impact how its migrant workers fare abroad, this pressure is rarely exerted. Instead, inaction by government institutions, and particularly Pakistan’s foreign service, is far more typical.

Abu Zar, Saudi Arabia

Having spent an age languishing in Indonesian prison on trumped up charges, Zulfiqar Ali spends his final days in hospital | Justice Project Pakistan
Having spent an age languishing in Indonesian prison on trumped up charges, Zulfiqar Ali spends his final days in hospital | Justice Project Pakistan

Like Zulfiqar Ali, Abu Zar was a Pakistani migrant waiting for a response that never came from his government. In February 2012, Abu Zar was excited for his first trip home to Pakistan in two years, paid for by the Al-Sagheer taxi company that employed him in Saudi Arabia. His days were spent driving for wages much higher than he could command back home in Pakistan’s Bhakkar district, an expanse of verdant land situated in Punjab.

After Abu Zar’s customary trip home that year, which involved greeting relatives, lavishing them with gifts, and enjoying his own joyful reprieve from the toil of driving, Abu Zar’s family drove him nearly five hours north to Islamabad airport. There, they embraced him for the final farewell.

After the routine goodbyes, the family expected Abu Zar to immediately embark on the plane for the onward journey. However, unbeknownst to them, an old colleague from Al-Sagheer had contacted Abu Zar, seeking help with a mundane task. The request was simple enough: Abu Zar was asked to carry an extra luggage item on behalf of the colleague, to be delivered to family in Saudi Arabia. Abu Zar agreed without asking what was inside the bag.

Indeed, for migrant workers detained on death row, the Saudi justice system often seems cruelly capricious. Sometimes detainees believe their punishment will span a fixed interval of time, only to realise the judges have arbitrarily modified the sentencing. “They will give you a punishment of 15 years imprisonment, and after five years they can change this and give you capital punishment,” Ahmed says.

Abu Zar proceeded through passport check and the security gate without any problems. At the time, he was distracted by thoughts of his family — he knew he wouldn’t see them for another year or two.

When the plane descended at Jeddah airport, however, Abu Zar’s situation changed radically. Almost immediately after landing, Saudi airport security informed him that they had discovered drugs in his luggage. Unbeknownst to him, the tyres and handle of the bag he had taken from his colleague were lined with illicit narcotics.

The response was swift: Abu Zar was arrested for drug possession and immediately transported to Briman prison in Saudi Arabia’s western quarter. For at least 15 days, none of Abu Zar’s family members in Pakistan were notified about his whereabouts.

“The family was so upset,” remembers Nazeer Ahmed, Abu Zar’s brother in Pakistan. “We were running everywhere, contacting police, airport authorities and the airlines. We couldn’t find anything.”

Eventually, after more searching, they learned that Abu Zar had successfully boarded his flight to Saudi Arabia, and even touched down on Saudi soil. Beyond that, the details were scant.

In April 2012, 17 days after his disappearance, relatives began pouring into the family home in Bhakkar district to offer condolences to the parents and siblings. Family members dissolved into elegiac verses. Most had resigned themselves to the idea that the worst had come to pass, convinced that Abu Zar had died a mysterious death. Even though there was no body to mourn, tears were shed.

Not long after the unforeseen funeral, however, Ahmed received a call from Saudi Arabia. To his astonishment, Abu Zar was still alive.


On the phone, Abu Zar said he had been booked on drug trafficking charges and sentenced to death by a Saudi court. He had tried to get in touch with Al-Sagheer, his Saudi employer, for any form of assistance, but the calls had gone unanswered. The family was dismayed to learn that Abu Zar’s hearing took place without a lawyer, as the Saudi government held itself under no obligation to provide legal representation to the accused, including those facing the death penalty.

Following his arrest, Abu Zar was housed inside Briman jail in Jeddah, a multifunctional sand-coloured complex that served as a detention centre housing men, women and minors. During his initial stay, Abu Zar had lost all contact with the outside world, and spent his days in detention listless and stressed. He told his brother that Briman jail provided decent enough food that he was still eating. But the mental anguish of detention often felt like a bullet piercing through him, he said.

Abu Zar feared death, and the time in jail allowed thoughts of little else, his brother said. Worse, Abu Zar did not know the exact day the execution would take place, only that it would transpire in some always-imminent future. The uncertainty weighed heavily on him, as it did for many prisoners who had no choice but to wait for their own execution.

“They don’t tell a person beforehand,” said Ahmed. “They just pick him from the prison and behead him.”

Abu Zar had appealed directly to the Pakistani and Saudi governments to be released, but his search for clemency bore no fruit. Meanwhile, Abu Zar was worried and anxious about how his children were faring in his absence. He had four children — two daughters and two sons — and he thought of them often while he was in prison. He furtively called his family back home in Pakistan by bribing a guard in the jail. Other prisoners kept phones illegally, bartering minutes on the phone among fellow inmates. The privilege of calling home was eagerly sought after by detainees.

“Prisoners have a right to see and meet their children,” his brother told me, saying that the family in Pakistan was not kept abreast of anything happening in Jeddah. Distressed by the lack of information, the family arranged an umrah [pilgrimage] visa for Abu Zar’s father. “He went to Saudi Arabia and submitted papers in the Pakistani embassy. He also met the judge.” Still, it changed little — Abu Zar remained in prison.

In recounting the situation, Abu Zar’s brother lamented the Pakistani government’s inattention and negligence.

Complicating matters was Ali’s health which, by December 2017, had deteriorated entirely. That month, Ali’s physician informed him that he was suffering from stage-4 terminal liver cancer which doctors had no cure for. The likelihood of him dying, either on death row or in the hospital, was now almost a foregone conclusion.

“The people in the government didn’t listen,” said Ahmed. “They don’t pay heed to his situation. What can we do about it?”

Indeed, for migrant workers detained on death row, the Saudi justice system often seems cruelly capricious. Sometimes detainees believe their punishment will span a fixed interval of time, only to realise the judges have arbitrarily modified the sentencing.

“They will give you a punishment of 15 years’ imprisonment, and after five years they can change this and give you capital punishment,” Ahmed says. “When a person is working in another country, he feels imprisoned even when he is free. So you can only imagine the condition of those who are actually in prisons there.”

Worse, the Saudi government rarely informs foreign embassies when a citizen is on death row, as required by the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. Many families never learn that their relatives are facing the gallows.

Ahmed adds that he attempted several times to lodge complaints regarding the outcome of his brother’s trial and detention, but there are few avenues open to report grievances.


Ahmed says that the worst moment is reserved for the time after the execution, not before: “They don’t send the body back to his family. They throw it away.”

Sohail Yafat, an investigator with the JPP, echoes Ahmed’s claim by saying that the Saudi criminal system does not give much hope to families who are looking for closure after capital punishment. Thanks to strict Islamic burial rites, the Saudi government often buries the dead bodies in unknown locations in the kingdom. Families waiting to receive the bodies often wait interminably long intervals before being told that there was no body to send back.

While this policy impacts migrant workers from a variety of countries, other foreign governments have been more active in addressing it. In 2017, neighbouring India had to petition the Saudi state for the repatriation of a woman’s body to Kerala, India, a successful move that showed the impact of a government exerting pressure. For Pakistani migrant workers, Islamabad’s lack of diplomatic lobbying has meant that few, if any, deceased bodies are returned to the next of kin.

Theoretically, the mechanisms should already be in place to address these issues. Pakistani embassies and consulates across the globe employ “community welfare attachés,” a department tasked with keeping track of any labour problems impacting Pakistani citizens in the destination country. In addition to studying local labour market conditions (which, in the Gulf, often includes the abuse and exploitation of Pakistani labourers), the remit of the community welfare attaché also extends to taking note of how many Pakistani citizens are imprisoned in local jails and, in some circumstances, visiting them or notifying their families in Pakistan of an inmate’s condition in jail.

However, according to the JPP, the majority of Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails say that their embassy has never visited them in jail. Pakistani diplomatic missions in Saudi Arabia say they remain too chronically understaffed to review, let alone help address, the burgeoning prisoner population.

“Abu Zar’s story is one case but there are thousands of people in Saudi Arabia with the same story,” says Ahmed. His calls with Abu Zar allowed Ahmed to glean insight into how pervasive the detention of Pakistan drug traffickers was in the Saudi prison system. He says Pakistanis crowd the jails and often have similar profiles: they fall prey to organised drug smuggling syndicates operating in Pakistan that lure migrant workers to the Gulf with promises of jobs that never materialise. Sometimes the migrants are asked to carry packages by a member of the group; other times, they are forced to ingest grammes of heroin at gunpoint. Often, they land on death row in Saudi Arabia, living in a state of limbo as the state decides when to mete out the punishment.

In the last few years, the number of Pakistanis has topped the list of foreigners executed on death row in Saudi Arabia. While other South Asian countries have successfully exerted diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia to free their citizens (for example, asking Riyadh to commute a sentence or deport a worker), Pakistan has shied away from prodding its close ally to extend clemency or grant fairer or more lenient punishments proportionate to the severity of the crime.

For example, the Philippines — one of the largest migrant-sending countries in Asia — not only takes up every case of a Filipino on death row in Saudi Arabia, it hires Saudi lawyers to defend its citizens. Likewise, a Sri Lankan housemaid escaped death by stoning in 2015, after Colombo filed an appeal against the death sentence. Overwhelmingly, when Riyadh has resolved death penalty cases without an execution, it has involved the foreign citizen’s embassy or government directly entreating the Saudis to lift the punishment or commute the sentence.

Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs contends that it does not have bargaining power with Saudi Arabia to negotiate the release of its citizens. However, evidence suggests otherwise: given their historically robust military and political partnership, Pakistan would seem to enjoy qualitatively better relations with Saudi Arabia than other Asian states.

As many as 70,000 Pakistani soldiers serve in Saudi Arabia’s military, and Pakistan’s former Chief of Army Staff Raheel Sharif was also tapped to lead Saudi Arabia’s new counter-terrorism military alliance in January 2017. Moreover, beyond the 2.5 billion US dollars in bilateral trade shared between the two Muslim countries, Pakistan’s third-largest city, Faisalabad, is named in honour of the late Saudi King Faisal, whose name — and largesse — is also behind the construction of one of the largest mosques in Pakistan, the Faisal Mosque in Islamabad.

In 2014, when former prime minister Nawaz Sharif visited Saudi Arabia, the late King Abdullah described the unwavering Pakistan-Saudi Arabia partnership in glowing terms, reiterating that Saudis would always support Pakistan’s government and people. Indeed, according to Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has few allies like Pakistan: “We consider Pakistan our second home,” he said.

When Prime Minister Imran Khan visited Saudi Arabia in 2018 in search of economic assistance, he referenced the plight of migrant workers. “I feel bad sometimes, because we have not been able to create the conditions that would keep them at home,” he told a Saudi audience. “All they do is work very hard here to feed their families.”

In the lead-up to Khan’s election, his party pledged to reform consular services for overseas Pakistanis. “We will strengthen Pakistani embassies to provide emergency relief and other support to citizens facing hardship in case of any tragedy. We will provide consular and legal services to all Pakistanis jailed abroad,” his party wrote. “Our Ministry of Foreign Affairs must be focused on furthering not just Pakistan’s interests abroad, but also ensuring protection of our citizens abroad.”

Indeed, without state-level intervention from Pakistan, families of migrants such as Abu Zar may have no choice but to accept that neither the Saudi nor the Pakistani government will stand with their family in their hour of need.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore. This essay is a modified excerpt from Uncertain Journeys: Labour Migration from South Asia, published in December 2018.

She tweets @SabrinaToppa

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 10th, 2019