Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan may have lost the number of times he had to prepare for death, only to survive through the last minute stay order. A prisoner on death row for the last many years, he has educated over 50 prisoners and completed 33 diploma courses during his days behind bars, earning him sobriquet, the “educator”.
“Brother Zulfiqar made me understand how precious our time is and how important education is. He offered to be my teacher and took full responsibility for my education,” says a prisoner, who did not give his name. Another anonymous inmate said: “When I was put on death row I was completely uneducated. Thanks to his hard work, I am now preparing for my bachelor’s degree. He has been like an angel in my life.”
Currently in Lahores Kot Lakhpat Jail, in 2009 Dr Khan publicly wrote a lucid appeal to President Asif Ali Zardari to commute his death sentence to life term.
An exceptional inmate who has positively influenced the otherwise dormant and stymied lives of prisoners has yet been awaiting “life” and a future for his two young daughters, Fiza and Noor who also lost their mother, Rubina, to leukemia in 2007.
In 1998 Dr Zulfiqar was on his way to Tumair village in Islamabads outskirts with his younger brother Khurshid when they were assailed by two boys. They first shot Khurshid in the arm. As the image of his elder brother`s murder still fresh in his memory, Zulfiqar shot the two boys, believing they were a threat to Khurshid’s and his life.
Working as a physical training instructor in Pakistan Navy and the only caretaker of his seven-member family, he felt responsible for Khurshid`s life. Although he acted in self defence, the two boys he shot, died.
From 1998 to 2008, Zulfiqar’s case went from the sessions court to the high court and finally to the Supreme Court. With the law taking its time at each tier, he received numerous “execution warrants” followed by last minute stay orders. As there was no response to his appeal, it essentially meant that he had to go through the agonising ordeal of preparing for death over and over again.
“When Dr Zulfiqar gets stay, his life is revived. When he is given a death warrant, it is like watching water being sucked out of a man’s body. His blood pressure rises,” says a fellow prisoner. “He may be courageous but of course he gets depressed by the sword of death hanging over him. When Dr Zulfiqar gets a stay, he resumes normal life, at least tries to. He is a thousand times bolder than us.”
In 2008 when Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) came into power, one of the first few pronouncements by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in the National Assembly was the commutation of all prisoners` death sentences to life imprisonment. The announcement espoused the party’s tradition on clemency, indicative of the fact that Benazir Bhutto and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto fought to abolish the capital punishment during their time in power.
But the main hurdle leading to an ‘unofficial’ moratorium was the outcry against the “un-Islamic step” from religious political lobbies.
A year after Mr Gilani’s announcement, a plea in the form of a clemency petition was sent by Reprieve, an UK-based organisation working for the prisoners on death row, to President Asif Ali Zardari in April 2009. But Dr Khan`s family has received no response since the petition was sent.
Since then he has faced over a dozen execution warrants. In other words, the date of his execution has regularly been pushed forward, thus far shadowed by the chance of execution.
Sarah Belal, a Reprieve fellow and director of Justice Project, terms the agony of Dr Khan “an unusual and cruel punishment in itself”, leading to immense distress and psychological trauma.
In 1992 on a petition by Dr Aslam Khakhi, a large bench of the Federal Shariat Court had discussed the entire provisions of the Prison Discipline of Pakistan and declared large portions of it repugnant to Islam, including the conditions of the death row. It clearly states on page 173: “Mercy petitions should not be allowed to linger on for years and should be decided within a reasonable period, preferably within a month.”
Dr Khan exemplifies immense grit in the face of constant adversity. He has won gold and silver medals and is the only prisoner to hold a master`s degree.
Prisoners, journalists, human rights activists and citizens who have written in his favour believe Dr Khan needs to live. He is also considered a ripe case for clemency by his lawyers.
Over the phone Dr Khan’s voice is steady: “I just want to live and continue what I’m passionate about – educating prisoners.”