After sleeping on a prison floor for 22 years, when I slept on a charpoy at home, I felt I was lying on one for the first time. Perhaps I was, as I no longer remembered what it was like sleeping under the open sky.
That first night out of prison, I hardly managed to sleep, perhaps for an hour. I kept staring at the starlit summer sky. At freedom.
My hometown of Mandi Bahauddin lies close to the River Jhelum in Punjab, the land of the five rivers. It was there on a dimly-lit road in 1998 that my life changed forever.
My mother had died not long before. The loss had left me bereft. As a teenager, I was like any other. Not particularly fond of school, I preferred to go gallivanting in the fields with friends instead. On July 10 that year, a robbery was attempted on a thoroughfare near the village. Shots were fired as the driver of the van under ambush reversed in panic. One man died. Months later, I was among the five boys picked up as suspects.
I was bathing cows by the riverside with my friends when I was bundled into a car and taken to a tiny cell with no windows and no sunlight. I could not tell night from day. The torture was brutal. I was hung from my wrists; it felt like my shoulders were being ripped off my torso. Policemen lay a heavy iron rod on me and sat on either end to weigh it down. The pain was excruciating. It was like being crushed by a steamroller. I carry the scars to this day.
I eventually confessed. Anyone would have under those circumstances. I was just a child, not a killer. But if they had asked me to confess to being a serial killer, I would have.
We were poor. And being poor is like being lost.
Eventually, they moved me to a prison and my trial began in an Anti-Terrorism Court. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. What was I doing next to terror suspects?
On July 5, 1999, I was sentenced to death despite overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise. An age test by the government showed my age to be 17 at the time. Two others among the suspects were also declared juveniles. But while the rest of the accused were all handed 10 years’ imprisonment, I was condemned to death. Death that stalked me for 21 years.
Today I am 39 years old, a middle-aged man. But I am free. A Pakistani court ruled that as per a law from 2001, my sentence should have been reduced because I was a juvenile. That law was ignored. In fact, they nearly killed me in March 2016, when I came within days of being executed. That is when Justice Project Pakistan took up my case, which eventually led to my release on June 30 this year.
I do not recognise this world outside. Everything is louder and faster, but also ravaged by a pandemic. My hometown looks nothing like what it used to. My nephew is quick to remind me that he and I have also changed. He was a year old when I was arrested. Today he’s a handsome man with piercing brown eyes. I meet my nieces, who I have never seen before. They cling to me as if I’m a sort of mythical creature from another world. I feel a bit like that.
It was a cruel world. I was kept in a jail for adult inmates. I had to beg to not be sodomised. Thankfully, they spared me. But a jail is no place for children, much less on death row. Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique; there are lots of children living in the terror of an adult jail.
Since my release, everyone wants to know what comes next for Muhammad Iqbal. The question scares me. A family of my own? When I was a teenager, there was a girl in my village that I wanted to marry. So when I heard about her wedding while I was on death row, I felt incredible pain and spent sleepless nights pining for her. But had she waited for me, she too would have lost 22 years of her life. And if I had been hanged in 2016, she would be commemorating my fourth death anniversary this year. For me, there is life after death. I only hope the same for the other boys lost in our dark prisons.
This piece is part of a collaboration between Justice Project Pakistan and Dawn.com in the lead-up to the World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10. Iqbal narrated his story to Ali Haider Habib of JPP, who put it together in the form of an article.