Pakistan had a 7-year moratorium on the death penalty. In that time, the population on death row increased to 8,264 people. In December 2014, there was a very tragic terrorist attack in Peshawar. The terrorists broke into the school and killed 134 children. It was quite tragic; there was an atmosphere of fear and anger amongst the general public. Generally, the view was that the Government wasn’t doing enough to curb terrorism in the country. So, in response to that, the Government removed the moratorium on death penalty and started executing people. Since December 2014, Pakistan has executed 404 people. 404 people in one and a half years! I think we are the third most prolific executer in the world. It is quite a big problem.
So the Government wanted to show its strength basically?
Yes. They wanted to show they were strong at that time and they wanted to do something concrete. This was the only thing, I mean this was the most obvious and most public thing that they could think of. And obviously as all of us know there is no link… Terrorist attacks and crime have not gone down in Pakistan. Even before the moratorium was installed and executions were taking place, there was no link between the number of execution that took place in a year and the number of crimes that took place.
Does Pakistan have specific laws and courts against terrorism?
We have a counter terrorism law but it’s very problematic. It’s called the Anti-Terrorism Act. But the definition of terrorism under that act is “anything that strikes fear in the hearts of the people”. And what ends up happening is that people who haven’t really committed terrorism-related offenses get convicted under that law. For example, one of our clients was tried as a terrorist because he kidnapped a child and the judge was like: “if a child is kidnapped, everybody will get really scared their child will get kidnapped so that’s it, you’re a terrorist”. They do that because the law allows for speedy trials so the trial has to end in a 3-month period. And that makes their job easier. Also, there’s fewer procedural safeguards under the terrorism act so, for example, a confession given in police custody is admissible as evidence whereas it’s not under normal criminal law where you have to make that confession before a judge. So, it just provides the police with an easy outlet to torture people and get a confession and use that confession to convict people.
What is your organisation, Justice Project Pakistan, doing to fight the death penalty?
Firstly, we provide legal aid and conduct advocacy on behalf of the most vulnerable prisoners who are facing the harshest punishments in Pakistan. In terms of the death penalty, we provide legal assistance to prisoners facing imminent executions. We use individual cases to push for wider reform in the criminal justice system. For example, one of our clients is mentally ill so we are using his case not only to challenge his imminent execution but also to push the country to enforce safeguards that curb executions on mentally ill prisoners, and provide them with appropriate detention facilities and medical checks to bring about that reform. A lot of our clients are juvenile offenders, they committed a crime when they were below the age of 18. Even though Pakistan has a law that prohibits executions of people below the age of 18, there’s no safeguards to make sure that people are not tried and convicted as adults. People don’t have birth certificates, they don’t have any kind of data proving their age so juvenile offenders are often executed. A particularly sad example is the case of Aftab Bahadur. He was arrested when he was 15 years old and the police tortured him into giving a confession. He spent 23 years on death row until he was finally executed last year. And right before his execution, the only witness in this case actually retracted his statement but the State still went ahead and executed him. That’s really something that stuck with us and it pushes us to keep working with these prisoners.
But we also understand that protecting people and giving them legal aid is not the only solution in order to bring about abolition in the country. We also try to change public opinion because there’s such a strong State narrative legitimizing the death penalty…in people’s minds, the death penalty seems to be the only way to curb terrorism. So we try to highlight the stories of our clients and people who are facing execution and make them more human. We do that through people’s families and through their narratives. Basically, through the stories we know exactly what’s wrong with the criminal justice system. Our campaign for execution is called “Who Are We Executing?” We take these individual stories to inform people that actually who you are executing are the people who are victims of an unjust criminal justice system. And they were either tortured or they weren’t given access to attorneys at the level of the trial or they were juvenile offenders, they’re mentally ill… One of our clients, Abdul Basit, entered prison as a fully functioning man, but he contracted tuberculosis in prison. The administration was aware of that but they did nothing to the point that this man actually fainted and went into coma for a week. And the jail doctor said that he was dead. But he wasn’t dead, he was alive. The problem was that he became paralyzed as a result of the lack of medical care. So, this man is now paralyzed and the State still wants to execute him. Execution has been scheduled four times. One of the problems is that the only way you can execute people in Pakistan is through hanging. And in order for the hanging to be humane this man needs to stand and be measured and mount the scaffolding which he can’t do because he’s paralyzed. How can you hang a person in a wheelchair?
You use the word narrative a lot. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it. Do you think it’s important to tell stories?
Definitely. That’s what we do to change public opinion. A lot of retentionist countries, especially Pakistan, are used to defending the idea that public opinion is for the death penalty. But that’s only because the public doesn’t know who’s being executed, because the State is saying that the people who killed the children in the Peshawar attack are the ones that are being executed. They don’t realise that the 400 people who are being executed are normal people like you and me! So, we use their stories to highlight the victims and we let the public make the decision: do these people deserve to be executed? And once people hear the story and hear how they suffered in the criminal justice system, their answer is “no”. We also use the stories of the families who suffered throughout the detention and execution of their loved ones. Using them as the faces of the campaign makes a huge impact. That really shows people that even if a person is executed it’s not just that person who is going to suffer, it’s the whole family. We often say: we defend people in the court of law but we also defend them in the court of public opinion. And it works.
We do plays as well. We use theatre and other cultural artistic expression, and that works wonders with the general public. We have art exhibitions. One of our exhibitions was a travelling exhibition, we went all over the country with art works and letters written by prisoners on death row to help people connect with those prisoners. We created a high level of empathy and it made a lot of difference to a lot of people. We also had this massive play called Lorelei. We played it in English and in Urdu and we got these very famous actresses to act in it, just to get people’s attention and make them come. We asked people before and after if they thought this person should be executed and there was a change in opinion.
The Government claims that public opinion is for the death penalty but it’s wrong. It’s just that people don’t know. Because the Government’s legitimizing act is so forceful and so strong. And they’re kind of playing on the fear that people have of terrorism. And it’s really about being the bridge between the people being executed and the general public to make sure that there’s a change in opinion.
How do you feel about death penalty in Pakistan?
It’s hard to say. There is definitely a lot of fear among people and, politically, the Government does not seem [ready?] on its own to abolish the death penalty, despite all these human rights violations. I think what’s important is international pressure and reminding Pakistan of its international human rights obligation is very important. And Pakistan is coming up for review in front of the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Committee Against Torture, so I think there’s opportunities for the international community to raise this issue at these forums. I think it’s important to keep highlighting, because of systematic flaws in the criminal justice system, how much injustice is done to the people who actually face execution.