A plague struck Sargodha in 1903.
To this day, people tell tales of how tens of thousands of people lost their lives as they lay wasted by disease. A curse to mankind.
Over a century later, Mohammad Farooq* lies wasting thousands of miles away from his hometown in Sargodha — in a prison cell, condemned to death. A sentence he wish he didn’t contract. A death in return for his dreams. Dreams of marrying off his infant daughter when she came of age.
But only nightmares come true for the poor, even when they begin as a dream.
Illiterate and unskilled, Farooq drove a rickshaw to support his family, the three wheels of his vehicle rolling on, barely pushing forward the lives of his pregnant wife and daughter.
Overworked and underpaid, Farooq didn’t have the time to dream, but his father, Abdul Samad*, did. He had three sons and a daughter, and he wanted for them a life better than his.
So when, in 2010, two men approached him as overseas employment promoters, Samad was adamant to make something of it, for Farooq to have dreams of his own.
Condemned unheard: On death row abroad
The agents, Allah Ditta and Mazhar Abbas, asked for Rs150,000. They told Samad they would take his son to Saudi Arabia. Farooq, just 26 years old at the time, would make a life in the desert kingdom. Their lives in Sargodha would bloom as a result.
It was no ordinary sum of money for a family with their limited means. The rickshaw had to be sold, along with everything else of value the family owned. It was the price they had to pay for their future, for the future of Farooq’s children.
The money bought a visa and travel documents. In May that year, just before floods wreaked havoc in plains across the country, Allah Ditta and Abbas took Farooq to Karachi, the City of Lights that was soon to plunge Farooq’s life into darkness.
He spent the next few days there. The heat and humidity in Karachi can be oppressive in May, but for Farooq, a far more dangerous fire was raging within.
He had to make a decision: risking his own life and the lives of his family, or do as the agents told him to. He did as he was told.
Farooq swallowed capsules of heroin that were to remain in his stomach until it was safe to excrete them. He then boarded a plane.
There were no final goodbyes. His family did not drop him off at the airport. His daughter did not ask him to get her presents when he returned. He did not tell his expecting wife to take care of herself and the baby.
The only familiar faces were unfriendly ones: Allah Ditta and Abbas forcing him to get on the flight. He was told someone would come collect him there. It turned out to be the Saudi authorities.
Farooq was arrested immediately upon his arrival in Riyadh. A trial was conducted in Arabic with no legal counsel for the defendant. Only some portions of the hearings were translated for him.
Upon his refusal to sign a confession in a language he did not understand, Farooq was given a month to file his objection. Relying on the generosity of fellow prisoners who spoke Arabic, he managed to submit an objection on time but was denied the fundamental right to appear in his defence or engage legal counsel.
He was sentenced to death by beheading less than two months later — around the same time his second daughter was born.
The girls are now 11 and nine years old. It has been nearly a decade since Farooq was first imprisoned. Since then, he has been transferred to Al-Ha’ir Prison from Malaz Prison, where he was initially kept.
Footprints: On the death row in Saudi Arabia
He calls his family back home frequently. I ask Samad what the conversations are like and what Farooq’s daughters say to him, but he falls silent. The silence of the state has silenced him too.
After Farooq’s arrest, Samad registered a First Information Report against Allah Ditta and Abbas, but both men were released a year and a half later.
He then sent appeals to the president, prime minister and chief minister. He never heard back from them either.
To date, no official notification has been issued by the government to inform Farooq’s family about his arrest and detention, nor has any meaningful effort been made to ensure justice for Farooq or to enforce his rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, or the Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam.
Samad does not know of these conventions. He does not care for them either. In a recent conversation on the phone, he asks me if there is any hope at all that his son will be spared. I can only respond with silence.
A plague struck Sargodha in 2010. But no one seems to know what to say.
*Names have been changed to protect identities
Read a detailed report by Justice Project Pakistan on this topic, Through the Cracks: The Exploitation of Pakistani Migrant Workers in the Gulf Recruitment Regime
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Ali Haider Habib was the Senior Assistant Editor of the Herald between April 2016 and April 2019. He currently works for Justice Project Pakistan and moonlights as a musician. He tweets @haiderhabib
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