Killing justice

Updated 09 Oct 2020

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The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.
The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.

DOWN with the lockdown.

Frankly, we’re tired. We knew there would be two scenarios as to how the pandemic would end. A medical end through the result of either widespread immunity or vaccination, or one which has already arrived. A social end. When we no longer fear it the way we did. The unknown isn’t as scary as the known. The kind of mortal certainty that comes with being a prisoner on death row.

Pakistan has over 4,000 of them, the second largest reported number of condemned prisoners. Where the slightest slight can send you to the gallows if you’re poor, while even damning video evidence of a wealthy politician running over a poor policeman cannot lead to conviction. Where people can be hanged and then acquitted of the crimes they were charged with. Dead until found innocent.

It takes a long time to prove your innocence when you don’t have means. A prisoner, on average, spends 11 years on death row before they are acquitted or hanged. Eleven years lost to faulty investigations; a fatal cocktail of forced confessions and shoddy defence that result in the Supreme Court overturning around 80 per cent of death penalty convictions.

Too many have been hanged for too little.

But we like extreme punishments. A spectacle. A lesson for others. An end in itself. Even when we know they are not the solution. Because real work takes time, effort and collective responsibility. Much easier to blame the victim and hang the rapist. It’s easy to be swept by rage. Rage that is disingenuous because it only fixes blame and kills the perpetrator but doesn’t put an end to crime.

In our anger, we do not care who it is we are killing. The mentally ill, physically disabled, those tortured into confessing the crimes of others. As if only those on the margins are capable of murder. Those already fighting to hang on to the very thread of life. Let’s hang them.

I once represented a poor Christian plumber who was barely 15 years old when he was arrested and sentenced for murder. Not only did two witnesses who had testified against him later withdraw their testimony, one of them — dying of guilt and old age — stood outside the prison gate the night before Aftab Masih was going to be executed 23 years later. He pleaded with prison officials to not hang the teenage boy he had falsely accused. The teenage boy who was nearly 40 years old. And dead before the sun came up.

I have seen too many hanged for too little. For being too poor, for loitering nearby, for just existing. Legal counsel is simply inaccessible for many prisoners accused of serious crimes. It doesn’t help that state-appointed counsels are paid a pittance. Most don’t bother to show up at hearings and almost never meet their clients. One prisoner, sentenced to death as a teenager because he did not have effective legal representation at the time, was released nearly 20 years later by the Lahore High Court. After his release, he told me being poor is like being blind. And that he’d rather be blind than dead.

The death penalty discriminates wherever it is implemented. It takes stock of the branded watches and deep pockets and discards the foul odoured and the wretched in the unwanted pile. In Saudi Arabia, for example, a large number of Pakistanis have been executed on drug-related charges. Most of them were poor labourers duped by kingpins into carrying contraband, often without their knowledge or consent. Many of them were shown dreams of employment or pilgrimage. Dreams that eventually turned into their worst nightmare.

Tomorrow marks the 18th World Day Against the Death Penalty. It is observed every year to shed light not only on the conditions of prisoners on death row but also how their executions are part of a cycle of violence that affects everyone. The trauma does not end with the family. It seeps through the entire jail. The shame of killing a person is such that the jail administration turns off the lights and only turns them back on after the hanging has taken place. The execution leaves everyone, from officials to inmates, indelibly traumatised. Even in a place as inherently morbid as a prison, the dread is palpable.

This year’s theme is access to justice. Justice that is elusive in the best of times. But in a lockdown, with a pandemic wreaking havoc all over the world, it is not very different from chasing rainbows. Rainbows that eventually fade to black. No lawyers, no legal counsel, no visits from relatives. The pandemic has been a second death sentence for those already living through one.

Innocence is often a privilege in our criminal justice system. And guilt an indication of deprivation. It is absurd to risk the fate of thousands of faceless individuals languishing in death cells because some of them might be guilty. That is not what justice looks like. Russian roulette perhaps. But not justice.

The writer is the founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @SarahBelal_

Published in Dawn, October 9th, 2020