THERE are far too many harrowing stories of people languishing in jail for decades in this country before being discovered one day and set free. This is no less than a tragedy where sometimes a lifetime has been spent under the shadow of an impending execution. Freedom is ultimately the triumph of human hope. Or of common sense. In recent days, the story has repeated itself yet again. Muhammad Iqbal was 17 when he was arrested and sentenced to death — a punishment that should be abolished altogether — in 1998. It took the law of the land almost two decades to decide that the prisoner was eligible to benefit from a law enacted a couple of years later which allowed reprieve, even in retrospect, to juvenile offenders.
The sword hanging over his head, ie the death sentence, should have been rescinded then and there under a presidential notification of 2001, which provided remission to all juveniles sentenced prior to the ordinance. That didn’t happen. Justice Project Pakistan, the group that helped the now middle-aged man win freedom, has mentioned some of the efforts made to ensure justice for Iqbal. Letters written to the authorities as far back as 2003 were cited and appeals for leniency were filed in the months leading to the Lahore High Court commuting the death sentence to life imprisonment in February, and then finally culminating in his release on Friday. The case once again calls for a campaign to find similar cases inside jails all over Pakistan and relieve the suffering of prisoners. It doesn’t quite befit any country in this day and age to just wait for these ‘chance’ incidents to occasionally provide comfort to our conscience. It also doesn’t suit the system of justice to be going off in various directions in an effort to ‘reform’ while the basic mechanism which anchors civilisations and law and order remains sadly absent. There is so much that is wrong with our prisons and overall justice system that needs to be corrected.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2020