SEVENTEEN years ago, death-row prisoner Kanizan, rendered mute as a result of unspeakable acts of torture on her person, had already lived in silence for 13 years. Azam was a 21-year-old juvenile offender in prison, still hopeful that the procedural delay resulting in his unlawful death-row status would change any day. Basit, having contracted meningitis while on death row in a filthy prison, had recently become paraplegic as a result, and now lay on his cell floor, unattended.
In 2002, the first World Day Against the Death Penalty was organised, in the hopes that capital punishment would soon be recognised as barbaric and eliminated as a form of retributive justice. Every year since, the day lends focus to a specific issue related to death row. In 2019, it hopes to shed light on the impact of the death penalty on the children of prisoners who have been sentenced to death — their peace of mind and physical security now the collateral damage of the criminal justice system.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), no one can be sentenced to death for a crime they committed as a child. The International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, which has also been ratified by Pakistan, reiterates this principle. The death penalty for children is a clear human rights violation, the trauma faced by its victims is recognised, and it has been declared violative of national and international law.
However, it is not just underage offenders who are at risk. The innocent children of death-row prisoners face inescapable ostracisation, neglect and trauma due to the sentences given to their parents. The scars of this suffering will be carried by these children into adulthood, not only affecting their own lives but the lives of everyone they touch.
These children are invisible victims of the death penalty.
Zulfiqar, another death-row prisoner, whose execution was scheduled and halted several times, had two daughters who visited him every time the death warrant arrived. They said goodbye to their father — a venerated and beloved teacher to his fellow inmates, a model prisoner who was well liked by the jail staff, and a sad example of the flaws in our judicial system — not once, but over and over again.
The impact of this ‘final’ meeting, a recurring nightmare, on two young girls from a family which lost their sole breadwinner is lifelong and crushing. One can only imagine what they felt when they realised there would be no more final meetings, and the quiet violence of the years of uncertainty had ended with a deafening snap.
Yet there are no resources made available for children who face the mental and physical distress of losing a caregiver in such a public and terrifying way. They face protracted anxiety during the long periods between arrest and sentencing, and then between sentencing and execution.
At increased risk of abuse, and unable to process the grim realities to which they are privy, these children are invisible victims of the death penalty, unseen by their remaining caregivers as they rush to save the incarcerated parent’s life. The unmitigated violence our criminal justice system inflicts on children is layered, systemic and unrelenting.
Today, Kanizan and Azam, who were juveniles at the time of their alleged crimes, are still on death row.
Basit too remains on death row. He was not a juvenile offender, and instead had two young children of his own when he was first sentenced. These children watched their father abruptly go to prison, with the knowledge that he would be hanged sooner or later. Once under the impression that those were his last days and hoping for more time, they instead watched him live a long, nightmarish life as a very ill man. Today, they can only identify him as a skeletal figure that lies listless on the floor of a prison cell.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC, a widely ratified commitment by nearly every country in the world to secure ‘every right for every child’. The death penalty’s enforcement against parents of minors violates the very core of the UNCRC. Pakistan must acknowledge a child’s right to healthcare, education, non-separation from parents and protection against torture, among others, when sentencing their parent.
Without considering all the rights of the child during sentencing, the repercussions of the death penalty will continue to be generational; creating senseless, widespread pain and suffering instead of providing retribution. These traumatised children are fated to grow up to be vulnerable adults. Seventeen years on from the first World Day Against the Death Penalty, we must choose to act now if we ever hope to break the cycle of poverty, crime and victimisation.
The writer is a lawyer working with Justice Project Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, October 10th, 2019