PAKISTAN: Ensuing executions a systematic move to instill fear

Aftab Bahadur Masih was executed in Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat Jail early this morning despite requests from rights groups and church leaders to halt the execution, terming his conviction as flawed. He was 15-year-old at the time of the commission of the alleged crime, a fact not disputed by the police or the courts. Aftab had already served 23 years in prison— longer than a term of life imprisonment. Though his execution was stayed 25 times, he could not escape the gallows this time.

According to jail staff posted at Kot Lakpat Jail, “Before the hanging, he was crying and saying he was innocent.” A few days before his death Aftab wrote a heart wrenching letter (available here) begging for clemency, hoping against hope for the darkest hour to end.

“I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money, so I can only rely on God and on my volunteer lawyers. I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark”, he wrote in his letter, translated from Urdu by the organization Reprieve.

The details of the case are as follows. Aftab Bahadur was sentenced to death for killing Sabiha Bari and her two infant sons in 1992. Ghulam Mustafa, a plumber with whom Aftab worked as a plumber’s apprentice, was arrested. He implicated Aftab under the duress of torture. Ghulam has since recanted his statement and said that Aftab had nothing to do with the crime.

The only eyewitness, a male servant at the house of the deceased, has recently made a statement before a Minister for religious affairs that he was coerced into giving his testimony, and that he was not even there at the time, and that he certainly did not see Aftab commit the crime.

According to Aftab, when he was arrested, the police asked for a 50,000 rupee bribe and said that they would let him go if he paid up. As a plumber’s apprentice, could not pay the hefty amount. Police had claimed that his finger prints were found at the crime scene. However, the evidence was, in fact, fabricated by the police to implicate an innocent 15-year-old who had no idea that his life was being destroyed forever.

For a whole year he was held in custody without trial and tortured. When the case was finally heard, Bahadur’s defense lawyer appointed by the State didn’t place the fact during the trial that Bahadur was a juvenile. The court incorrectly recorded his age as 21 years. In 1994, at the stage of appeal, when his new lawyer brought up the issue of his age, the judge declined to allow evidence on the matter.

At the time, the death penalty could be passed on a 15-year-old; the minimum age was raised to 18 in 2000. Aftab was convicted under the Speedy Trials Act in April 1993. This law required the police to complete investigation within 14 days of the filing of the FIR, while the courts were expected to deliver a judgment within 30 days, leaving little time for the defense lawyer to collect and submit all the evidence. The hurried justice meted out to many resulted in severe miscarriage of justice. Aftab was just another casualty of our collapsing criminal legal system that murders many at the altar of justice.

Aftab, a gifted painter, spent most of time in jail painting and writing poetry. A sensitive soul, he pleaded his innocence, but was unfortunately unable to prove it. Poverty was his only crime. He was unable to afford freedom from the elitist judicial system that lets the rich get away with murder and hangs innocent poor. It is indeed a sad day for human rights defenders who fought relentlessly for Aftab.

According to media reports, Pakistan has one of the largest populations of condemned prisoners and inmates on death row in the world: over 8,000. The previous government of President Zardari had put a moratorium on the execution, but following the killings of 147 students and staff of the Army Public School, Peshawar, on 16 December 2014, the government lifted the moratorium and started hanging prisoners from 19 December 2014.

Criminal law, in general, and death penalty convictions in particular, are tilted against the accused and the poor are worst hit. Aftab’s case is a classic example of what is wrong with the criminal justice system. He was subjected to almost every injustice conceivable. Just 15-years-old when he was arrested, tortured, and sentenced to death, he spent 23 years languishing on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

The court refused to even grant his lawyers the few days needed to present evidence which would have proven his innocence. This is a travesty of justice, a judicial murder of an innocent man. It appears that the government wants to send out a message that since the State can’t curb or deter crime it will now hang as many people as it can to create fear amongst the masses and thereby suppress opposition and dissent.

At each stage of the criminal justice system, i.e. investigation, prosecution, and trial, Aftab faced a terrible ordeal. Unfortunately, he is not an isolated case of mockery in the name of justice; many like him are hanged without getting a chance to defend themselves. The crippled system perpetuates injustice and torture as it sees a suspect guilty as charged without allowing him the right to defend his person. In this system, one is condemned to be guilty unless proven innocent. Judicial hypocrisy is giving rise to impunity for the powerful, while pushing the weak against the wall.

Those at the helm should remind themselves of the reasons that have caused civil war in many countries. Any system that is discriminatory against the weak factions of the society can’t sustain for long. It is time that the government takes notice of atrocities committed against the innocent and imposes moratorium on the death penalty. It is causing severe miscarriage of justice and it is failing to deter crime, as is evident from the rise in acts of terrorism since the moratorium was lifted.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-083-2015
Countries : Pakistan,
Issues : Death penalty,