I was put on death row as a child, 22 years later I am free

For me, there is life after death. I only hope the same for the other boys lost in our dark prisons.
Updated 09 Oct, 2020 07:38am

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.


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Muhammad Iqbal was sentenced to death at the age of 17 and was released this year after the Lahore High Court commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment, a term he had already served.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (21) Closed

Oct 09, 2020 04:24am
Poor people get punished and tortured and convict Nawaz roams free after looting billions and causing many deaths.
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M. Emad
Oct 09, 2020 04:51am
Pakistan should abolish death penalty.
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Adisa Komic
Oct 09, 2020 05:21am
very sad story, Pakistani justice system is actually unjust system!
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Oct 09, 2020 06:03am
In our country looters, killers and rapists are free. No police and juficiary are even bothering to pay heed to them but but a war of words is here to show off. What kind of compensation government will pay to him?? Psychological trauma, emotional abuse, physical abuse and stigma for life!!!!
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Umair Khan
Oct 09, 2020 06:26am
Salute to our police and judicial system...
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Oct 09, 2020 07:09am
How are you they going to buy luxury houses abroad for their families, if they fix the system?
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Akil Akhtar
Oct 09, 2020 07:36am
He was not found innocent so who knows what is the truth....does anyone ever accept his or her guilt in Pakistan even when caught red handed.
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Ali Mehdi
Oct 09, 2020 07:40am
The case needs to be dissected. A reverse engineering need to be held. Each one of those that are responsible for ruining the life of a juvenile who was not even an offender be identified and taken to task. What’s more important is resources like JPP be strengthened as that’s the ray of life for those that have nobody to defend them or help them out of the prison cells.
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Oct 09, 2020 09:14am
It happens in India too, its common across the world, unlucky but lucky ones to tell the story :)
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Oct 09, 2020 09:18am
If only we could initiate to find out the real wrongdoers of justice system and make this case as an example, finding out from among the police force the persons who were responsible for laying the blame on the innocent people, and punishing them severely, this at least would serve as a precedent for the future. Can anyone do anything to rectify this ghastly episode in the future, so that no body else suffers likewise?
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Oct 09, 2020 09:19am
It shows that the government failed to provide him justice for 22 years and therefore he should be compensated for it in the same way the government has been taxes for 22 years. Also, the police and the forensics department members of that time must pay blood money for they literally murdered his childhood.
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Oct 09, 2020 09:45am
What a terrible system of judiciary police. the loss which never compensate.
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Oct 09, 2020 09:57am
The government should compensate Mr Iqbal for the injustice they did to him. Some NGOs should come forward to help Mr Iqbal navigate the outside world.
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Oct 09, 2020 12:46pm
This is so sad. He must be compensated for his loss... His time would never return. He has lost everything.
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Oct 09, 2020 12:54pm
@Fastrack, why is it that you have to bring in nawaz in eveything dont you see the corruption of the present govt.is wheat sugar medicine all accessible now or were they under the previous govt. Its sad what happenned to iqbal.the govt should compensate and justice be served the real culprits shall be found and punished.
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Pakistani Awam
Oct 09, 2020 01:22pm
Poor people gets punished and tortured and looter Imran Khan enjoys the Royalty.
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Oct 09, 2020 02:01pm
They need to punish someone for terrorism to be in good books of western powers. unfortunately poor are easy targets
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Oct 09, 2020 02:39pm
And we only hype about people in NAB's custody as they are big fishes.
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Sami khan
Oct 10, 2020 01:45am
Pakistan need to mend its justice system. Unfortunately many innocent spent years of their lives for doing nothing and those rapists like Abid roam freely.
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Oct 10, 2020 03:31pm
One area where Indians and Pakistanis are on the same page. Good start. In fact 90% of the time , we have same issues and grievances. THEN , WHY DO WE FIGHT ?
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Zareen Kamran
Oct 10, 2020 07:34pm
So very sad and heart touching,what could be done for justice ? justice delayed is justice denied. Is there any compansation? Could there be any compansation?
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