IN 2023, 805,088 Pakistanis moved abro­­ad for work, sending back vital remittances which support the national economy. While we celebrate their pursuit for a better life and contribution to Pakistan, we must also confront the harsh realities faced by the 14,286 Pakistanis languishing in jails abroad.

Overseas Pakistani prisoners are at the mercy of foreign courts, facing trials in languages they cannot understand, and often without access to lawyers, impartial translators, or adequate consular help.These challenges lead to harsh punishments: at least 183 Pakistanis were executed abroad between 2010 and 2023, with 171 of these executions taking place in Saudi Arabia.

Abdul Imtiaz* was one of those Pakis­ta­nis, jailed in Saudi Arabia and eventually beheaded.His case was one of the first we in­­­vestigated at Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) — a legal action NGO representing the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners facing the harshest punishments at home and abroad — where we work as investigators to uncover mitigating evidence and support the families of prisoners facing severe punishments.

Abdul Imtiaz’s life was marked with misfortune. Five of his six siblings died, and he was the only surviving son. In his teenage years, his father developed spastic cerebral palsy and was unable to tend to his farm, shifting the burden of providing for the family to his mother. His mother worked as a crop picker, and for a few years they managed to survive on her income until his father died.

Many Pakistanis are trapped into transporting drugs.

Unable to see his family struggle, he dropped out of school in the ninth grade to help shoulder the financial burden.After working as a bus conductor and learning how to drive, he persuaded his mother to part with her meagre savings to buy a van.He believed it would be their ticket out of poverty, but as he was underage, he contacted an agent in his village to procure a fake driver’s licence.This agent would later introduce Abdul Imtiaz to a criminal world.

At first, Abdul Imtiaz was able to generate enough income from driving the van. But the family was still left scrambling to cover the expense of his sister’s wedding. He needed a way to make money, and fast. His life took a tragic turn when the village agent — who had previously produced his fake ID — learned of his quandary and offered to send him to Saudi Arabia to find work. The agent told him his flight would be paid for through the donation of a wealthy individual who wished to aid the impoverished.

A few days later, in the midst of his sister’s wedding, he disappeared.

Months later, his family was contacted by a man who had just returned to Pakistan after being incarcerated in Saudi Arabia. He told them that Abdul Imtiaz had been jailed in Jeddah for drug trafficking. He said that Abdul Imtiaz asked him to convey to his family how he had been lured to an unfamiliar location under the pretence of boarding a flight to Saudi Arabia. But, upon arrival, he was viciously beaten and coerced to transport drugs into the country. Imprisoned and far from home, after five years, Abdul Imtiaz was executed for drug trafficking.

Many impoverished Pakistanis like Abdul Imtiaz are trapped into transporting drugs by unauthorised intermediaries who operate illegally alongside private firms recruiting workers for jobs overseas.These Pakistanis are jailed upon arriving at their destination, with a significant number of them facing the death penalty, as global drug laws often resort to excessively punitive measures.

Thirty-five countries retain the death penalty for drug offences, constituting a third of worldwide executions, with over 3,700 people on death row in 19 cou­ntries. Inter­natio­nal human rights law restricts the death penalty to “the most serious crimes”, no­­tably excluding drug offences. Experts have stressed that crimes like drug-related offences, not directly resulting in death, should never incur the death penalty.

Article 4 of Pakistan’s Constitution stipulates that all citizens have a right to be treated in accordance with the law, wherever they are. Pakistanis jailed abroad face due process violations, including prolonged detention without trial and lack of legal representation. Timely consular intervention is crucial to saving lives by helping bring exculpatory evidence to foreign courts.

Highlighting the urgent need for consular protection policies, international cooperation, and public empathy to safeguard those jailed abroad, JPP’s interactive webpage on Overseas Pakistani Prisoners offers data on incarceration rates per country and emphasises the importance of prisoner transfer agreements for repatriation.

We hope Abdul Imtiaz’s story becomes a rallying cry for justice and enhanced protections for vulnerable Pakistanis imprisoned abroad.

*The writers are JPP investigators. The name and minor details have been changed to protect the identity of the individual.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2023

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