Khurshid Ali Khan stepped out of the Rawalpindi central jail, in 2011, to resume a life he hoped to start afresh. After serving a sentence of 25 years, he was acquitted of the charges levelled against him and he came to Lahore. But luck was still not on his side. Eight years after completing his prison sentence for a case he was falsely implicated in, Khurshid still desperately struggles to build that life he dreamed of. Innocent or not, shedding the stigma of being an ex-convict has so far hampered all his efforts to get a decent job to make ends meet.
The case which landed Khurshid in prison became a high-profile one as, with the help of civil society, it brought under scrutiny Pakistan’s death penalty laws. But Khurshid’s name is rarely attached to the saga. It was his older brother Zulfiqar whose name was mentioned in headlines and op-eds.
On a fateful day in 1998, Khurshid — then around 19 years old — and his elder brother, Zulfiqar, 28, were attacked by two men while on their way to a village in the outskirts of Islamabad. Being a navy officer, Zulfiqar carried a gun, with which he shot at the robbers in self-defence. The brothers were arrested and both were charged with murder. Zulfiqar’s confession stated that only he had fired the gun and that his younger sibling was innocent. But corruption in the police and shortcomings in the justice system threw them both in Rawalpindi Central Jail.
For both Khurshid and Zulfiqar, life as they knew it was as good as over.
“Zulfiqar had confessed to the killing right after being arrested,” Khurshid tells Eos. “The investigation officer took a bribe from us, saying they’ll let me go, but he had got a higher bribe from the complainants for pinning us both for murders.”
“I was falsely charged with carrying a weapon when I’ve never even held a pistol in my life,” says Khurshid, now 40. (Khurshid did serve his complete sentence but various remissions allowed him to be freed in 13 years.)
After serving years in prison, even those eventually acquitted step back into a society unwilling to reintegrate them. Instead of enjoying freedom once again, they struggle to regain not just a source of income, but their integrity and self-respect
“We were both nominated in the FIR, but the court awarded Zulfiqar a death sentence upon his confession and sent me to jail for 25 years on the basis of testimonies that I had killed a man. It was all untrue because there was nobody to witness the incident except the four of us. My only crime was being there with my brother...”
Ejaz Shah was incarcerated for 15 years and four months in a murder case only to be released in 2016 when Supreme Court judge Justice Asif Saeed Khosa ruled that Shah had been implicated in a fabricated case and that there was no evidence to declare him the culprit. He too has struggled to fit back into society.
Shah’s father was a councillor-level political figure of Sahiwal in an area which was notorious for crimes and hardened criminals. In the early ‘90s, after his father won an election, his rivals all united against him in the next elections. A couple of years later, two local men, Chaudhry Rehmat and Abid from his opponents’ side, were murdered during a robbery. The culprit, a notorious criminal known as Kala, was sentenced to death. The sentence lingered, so one night in 2000, a grand panchayat (village council) was held to reconcile Rehmat’s family and his killer. The panchayat was being headed by Shah’s father and attended by MNAs and MPAs.
“Rehmat’s son, Inayat, who was a local drug peddler, sent his son Sultan to just fire at and injure Kala to create a diversion in the panchayat so that no compromise was reached and the killer was indeed hanged,” recalls Shah. “Sultan was a neighbour and a friend, so he and I were on our way when we encountered Aslam, who was related to Kala, gathering people for the panchayat. Sultan fired at Aslam to injure him, but he died on the spot. The murder case was filed against me, my father and younger brother on the complaint of none other than Sultan. Later, after investigations, my father and brother were absolved of the charges, while I was sentenced to death under Section 302.
The biggest responsibility for taking care of a human being lies with the state, and governments need to be congnisant of the fact that former prisoners come out of jail with psychological and emotional baggage, yet they deserve every opportunity and chance to become a respectable part of society again. As is the case with Khurshid and Shah to date, they struggle to find stable livelihoods and family lives alike.
A resident of Shakargarh, Khurshid had eight siblings, out of which one was murdered and one (Zulfiqar) hanged. His parents have passed away, and he himself is now destitute. “The day I was sent to jail, my life was finished. I was married and had a daughter right before I was sentenced — she’s studying these days. But I had to divorce my wife. My family has abandoned me because I’m jobless and I don’t even have a place to live. That’s how cruel our society is.”
Shah now lives with one of his brothers in Multan, while the rest of his siblings are scattered across Punjab. His family does not own a house and he cannot even return to their hometown Sahiwal for the fear that his opponents, who’ve grown stronger over the years, might murder him. “Currently, I work in a workshop and only earn a 25 per cent commission if and when there is work, there’s no fixed salary,” says Shah. “I’m over 45 and a former convict and in all those years in jail my body has also slowed down. Recently, my wife and I had a huge argument because I cannot provide basic necessities for my family.”
Khurshid’s brother Zulfiqar’s case was widely covered in the media; his execution was stayed around two dozen times before he was finally hanged in May 2015. During his time in prison, Zulfiqar taught some 400 fellow inmates, who received degrees (FA, BA, Masters) while in prison. He was eventually hanged in 2015. Khurshid, too, earned a BA degree and learned a few vocational skills during his imprisonment. He was released after he was acquitted of charges. “If I meet that investigation officer today,” says Khurshid, “and he swears on the Quran that he recovered a pistol from me, I’ll spend another 25 years in jail.”
In jail, besides learning how to weave carpets, Khurshid worked as a clerk and had firsthand experience of noting down the last wishes of death-row prisoners and witnessing the miserable conditions that they were kept in. “They’re trapped in a tiny cell with almost no facilities. It’s dark with nothing and no one around them. They’re only given a copy of the Quran to keep them busy. There’s hardly any water for the toilet and even the shalwar drawstring is seized so that they don’t hang themselves with it. What would a person be thinking when he knows he’d be dead in the morning? When he walks 20 steps to the gallows, I’m sure his whole life flashes in front of his eyes as he takes the final steps,” he says.
The day I was sent to jail, my life was finished,” says Khurshid. “I was married and had a daughter right before I was sentenced — she’s studying these days. But I had to divorce my wife. My family has abandoned me because I’m jobless and I don’t even have a place to live. That’s how cruel our society is.”
Lack of proper medical care often results in inmates’ deaths for which nobody is held responsible, Khurshid claims. “If someone has a heart attack, they’ll call a helper who’ll arrive after half an hour regardless of how urgently a prisoner needs medical care. He will walk a kilometre to get the lock-up keys, take the inmate to a hospital where doctors are usually absent. A doctor will be called in and by the time he/she finally arrives the person has usually died. A prisoner’s death in jail is akin to a dog in the street. No one is blamed or booked in any case.”
Basic amenities aren’t the only thing unavailable inside prisons, he says. Corruption holds sway in case of even minor tasks. “It all depends on how much money you can spend on bribes to get better facilities inside jails,” he says. “The more you spend, the more comfortable you’ll be. A prisoner who has been given rigorous imprisonment can avoid working by paying bribes. People sell drugs also. I once read in a newspaper that a simple superintendent of jail had built a massive house in Model Town when his salary wouldn’t be more than 50,000 rupees to 60,000 rupees a month. It became a huge scandal and he was suspended.”
As per a report, titled Addressing Overcrowding in Prisons by Reducing Pre-Conviction Detention in Pakistan, developed by the National Counter Terrorism Agency (Nacta), in cooperation with Cursor of Development and Education Pakistan (CODE) and the International Committee of the Red Cross, there were 84,287 inmates in 112 prisons across the country on October 1, 2017, while the total capacity of all the jails in Pakistan was 53,744. This makes the occupancy rate of prisons 157 per cent. In Punjab alone, the Prisons Department website states that there are a total of 48,794 inmates in prisons across the province (as on April 15, 2019) out of which 47,913 are male and 881 female.
An officer from the social welfare department is designated for each jail. Khurshid says he never saw any such officer during his time in prison. “That officer is supposed to solve our problems regarding medical, education, and other needs, but instead, [it was] my brother [who] taught so many prisoners who got degrees.”
Out of prison, Khurshid hoped to get a new lease of life, but has been dejected at the way society has treated him. He is an alien for all intents and purposes. “For a year after I was freed, my brain wasn’t functioning properly. I didn’t accept the outside world. When I regained some sense, I started looking for work.” He drove a motorcycle rickshaw on rent, but that work didn’t get too far. He worked at a small office, but wouldn’t always get paid. He went to work in an NGO but they fired him after six months.
It has been one struggle after another. “If I go to a private company,” he says, “they ask me about my background and experience. As soon as they find out about jail, they turn me away. I can read, write, understand and even teach English, but I’ve been living on the streets for five months. An ex-colleague from the NGO recently offered me to sleep at his workshop.”
“It’s very difficult for them to adjust after coming out of jails,” says veteran activist I.A. Rehman of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. He recalls that, earlier, there were special inspectors and probation officers who used to take care of a prisoner’s rehabilitation by teaching them various skills such as wood carving, tile making, etc., so they could earn a living like normal people once they were free. But on pretext of security, such systems were abolished.
“Inside a jail, a good inmate is turned into a bad one instead of the other way round,” says Rehman. “So he becomes useless, frustrated, hopeless. But there should be rehabilitation for such people. On a state level, first you’ve to see what your system of justice is: if it’s reformative then you’ll not let an inmate go to waste. It’s a very critical issue and a lot could be and needs to be done in this regard.”
Sarah Belal of the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), who also took up Zulfiqar’s case as their first, agrees that the prison system should be designed with the purpose of rehabilitation instead of punishment for crimes. “International law stipulates that the imprisonment should provide favourable environment through opportunities to all under-trial, detained and convicted prisoners, regardless of their crime, to acquire education and vocational skills to avoid receding and returning to a life of crime. We believe everyone deserves a second chance,” she says.
Rehman says NGOs only worked with children and women but nothing substantial was done on their part for the sick or for the drug addicts. “Society’s mindset needs to be changed too. Skilled and educated former prisoners can start afresh by moving to places where nobody knows them. They can also work on daily wages in their own neighbourhoods and villages, if possible,” he added.
Belal feels the government should adopt the UN’s minimum standard rules for the treatment of prisoners and the guidelines issued by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. “The stigma is the biggest hurdle faced by an ex-prisoner,” she says. “The state needs to make halfway houses that provide free housing to ex-prisoners. This could help provide them with skills, support and also find them employment. As most prisoners come out of prison suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, these homes are critical for their reintroduction into society.”
ANOTHER CHANCE AT LIFE
Khurshid isn’t too happy with how NGOs working in prisons have been functioning because there isn’t any facilitation towards rehabilitation and reintegration of former prisoners and help in getting them jobs. “I went to various NGOs and sought help to set up a small business such as an auto workshop or tea stall, or even purchase a rickshaw on instalments,” he says. “Some kind people in the NGOs gave me a few thousand rupees from their own pocket once. I asked for loans to get a rickshaw on instalments that I would pay back every month, but to no avail.
“I feel all the NGOs are working for their own benefit and not to help humanity as they claim,” he says bitterly. “There should be organisations to rehabilitate, provide counselling to and help get jobs for those who’ve completed their prison sentences. To give them another chance at life.”
But while NGOs and/or the state may not be helping former prisoners restart their lives with dignity, there may be some ex-inmates who would either be willing to offer their services for such a purpose, because they’d know best what they go through in a jail. Or such people would embark on their own to create a model to support former inmates.
Yafat, a former inmate, wants others like him to be productively reintegrated in society. In the absence of any such initiative here in Pakistan, he is developing one of his own to provide counselling and job opportunities to former prisoners. “Around the world, there are government-funded re-entry programmes,” he says.
Sohail Yafat is a former prisoner, who is currently working with the JPP as a criminal defence investigator. He was sent to jail in 2001, got bail in 2010 and was finally acquitted in 2015 in a murder reference that was actually filed against unknown people. “I was in Lahore and the incident happened in Sahiwal,” he tells Eos. “I saw the system flaws and loopholes closely as to how underprivileged people like me are implicated in false cases and then left to suffer. That’s when I decided to work for other inmates if I stay alive.”
Yafat was arrested from a hospital in May 2001 where he was visiting a friend’s father. He was implicated in a blind murder case which had taken place in January that year in Sahiwal, and moved between the notorious Sahiwal Central Jail and Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail. He faced third-degree torture to force out of him a confession to the blind murder.
Sohail was awarded a life sentence. He was released on bail in 2010 and later acquitted of all charges in 2015.
When Yafat appeared in the trial court in 2001, he pleaded ‘not guilty’, claiming that he never visited Sahiwal and did not know anything about the murder. The complainant of the murder also testified that they didn’t know him. He was given a state lawyer, who failed to produce any evidence or witnesses in his defence. Hence, Yafat was awarded a life sentence.
Sohail was released on bail in 2010 and later acquitted of all charges in 2015.
Yafat thought about the need to rehabilitate a person who comes out of jail and how society reacts to him or her. He tried to explore what the system can offer such a person. To him, even the debate around jail reforms is laughable: the slogan maybe to provide skills to prisoners, but, he feels, the system is so outdated that it is useless. “Hand-knotted rug making, furniture and bed posts are some of the things taught in rigorous imprisonment, but rug-making affects eyesight and some inmates even suffer from tuberculosis. Plus, finances are required to start such businesses, which aren’t available to many.”
This former inmate wants others like him to be productively reintegrated in society. In the absence of any such initiative here in Pakistan, he is developing one of his own to provide counselling and job opportunities to former prisoners. “Around the world, there are government-funded re-entry programmes. A healing centre will be developed here that provides counselling to prisoners who’ve spent long sentences to bring them out of trauma, capacitate them, find jobs for them. And if they can’t work then we’ll offer microfinance so their life gets a meaning and a source of income, and their integrity and self-respect is regained,” says Yafat.
He hopes to seek help from the JPP to get this initiative legislated. “I’m talking to organisations and some are willing to help me. I studied an Irish model and their trainers will come here to train staff for the centre. I want this to start functioning this year,” he adds.
Ambreen Raza, the Punjab social welfare secretary, admits that there are no measures to help adult male prisoners while they are in prison or even when they are set free, but a special welfare officer does provide counselling to juveniles and women. “We are now creating a robust programme with the prisons department for skill development marketing, under which prisoners will be able to sell their products while serving their sentences,” she says.
For women and juvenile prisoners, she elaborates that there are certain NGOs working inside prisons, adding that in the Lahore district jail’s juvenile section, an NGO is running a school. “So there is something happening, which I won’t say is remarkable overall, but there’s always room for improvement, especially in this sector because there is no one to oversee it.”
She suggests that the former male inmates can work at shops as salesmen, as there won’t be much scrutiny there. “If they’re skilled, they could opt for self-employment such as telephone repairing.” She adds that it could be a problem in villages where there are small communities, but unlikely to happen in big cities such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Multan.
“For skill development, Punjab and federal governments are running programmes where the candidates are taught for free and given a stipend also, and at the end are offered microfinance. Navtec, Tevta, Punjab Skill Development Company have been started for this purpose. We want to do this for transgender persons also,” adds Raza.
THE STIGMA THAT SHADOWS
Even when the law shows clemency to those suffering in prisons for crimes they have not committed, society bars the innocent from being included. For some, the past before prison life shadows them even after their release.
Though Shah started working two months after he was released from jail, he hasn’t been able to get anything long-term; all the jobs he’s tried lasted only a few months. “I only received primary school education,” he says. “But thank God my son is getting good education all due to the efforts of his mother, who brought him up, toiled all day and worked hard on him too.”
Shah’s appeal was eventually heard by the Supreme Court 15 years and four months after he was jailed; Justice Asif Saeed Khosa declared that Shah had been falsely implicated in the case as there was no evidence against him. “Finally, I was freed. I was jailed in 2001 and released in 2016,” he says.
For three years, until Shah’s appeal was heard by the high court, his family borrowed money from relatives to pay the lawyers. His father died shortly after. Shah and the rest of his family were left with their house as their sole property. “My mother borrowed more money from the relatives and, as a guarantee for its return, asked them to live in the house till we were able to repay them. But my father’s opponents — the Khans and Maliks — cheated our relatives into transferring the property in their name. We still haven’t been able to recover it.
“Society stigmatises anyone who is freed after a jail term, especially in a murder case,” adds Shah. “Nobody considers us innocent or good. Nobody talks to us or trusts us. I still hear taunts from distant relatives or so-called friends, and this will probably end only when my life ends.”
According to Khurshid, when someone languishes in prison for a crime they did not commit and then is not even given a chance to redemption, they resort to all sorts of criminal activities. “The government should start projects to make use of such people when they come out of jails,” he says. “I met a few of my fellow inmates outside who told me they were jailed again later for petty crimes because they couldn’t tolerate the insensitivity of society. I’ve been blessed with a strong willpower. I also wish to wear nice clothes and shoes and carry a phone and look presentable, but I want to earn all this through a job. I can commit a crime too, but I don’t want to go back to jail. I want to remain free. Freedom is a huge blessing.”
With a penchant for poetry and having read Parveen Shakir, Wasi Shah, Saghar Siddiqui, Ghalib, Farhat Shah and Faiz to name a few poets, Khurshid concludes our conversation with a verse by Zauq: “Mar ke bhi chain na paaya to kidher jaayengey. That’s how I’m living. I won’t get peace even after death because of a lack of finances. My soul has ceased to live. I’m only breathing and living physically.”
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, June 16th, 2019