By Zubeida Mustafa
OBITUARIES should not be set aside for another day. But I am writing one after two years when I have summoned up the courage to write about a man who was hanged on May 6, 2015.
There was a time I wrote frequently about Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan when he was living. I wanted to save his life. He remained in prison for 17 years — seven years on death row — before the hangman got him. The night before his hanging I had received a desperate message from Justice Project Pakistan if I could help get him clemency. I, a retired newspaperwoman, have no clout. The next morning, JPP informed me that Zulfiqar was no more and I felt I had let down his two young, motherless girls. I had also failed the cause of education in Pakistan.
On the International Day against the Death Penalty on Oct 10 many voices were raised in this context. I have always been against capital punishment. Life is too precious for humans to take — whether they be murderers or the supposed guardians of justice in a state.
After all, those sitting in judgement are fallible too and can commit an error, given our flawed judicial system. There can be no redress if the death penalty has been carried out.
Dr Zulfiqar wanted to improve the same society that had wronged him.
But here I will not tread familiar ground. Those who can change the system are least interested. I had supported Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan for another reason — his love for books and education. I had managed to establish contact with him through his brother via the NGO Reprieve. I was fascinated by his achievements in the field of education while he was under the shadow of death.
To me, that itself outweighed the alleged crime he denied he committed — the death of a taxi driver in self-defence. There had also been a miscarriage of justice, he claimed, because he was never provided a good lawyer by the state.
How did Dr Zulfiqar respond to this injustice of which he became a victim? He wanted to improve the same society that had wronged him. His desire was to extend the light of education to prisoners who had been his companions since 1998 when he was thrown into jail.
He did not despair. He did not become anti-social as anyone else could have in such circumstances. Above all, he kept his sanity and equanimity which a good teacher must possess. That is how he could continue his own studies in trying conditions and also find the time and motivation to teach others.
He managed to complete two Master’s degrees and also obtained an MD in herbal medicine from the Allama Iqbal Open University. By improving his academic standards, he improved his skills as a teacher. As a result, he taught nearly 300 fellow prisoners to read and write, out of whom 100 matriculated, 80 passed their FA, 60 graduated and eight went on to do their MA. This is a better record than many of our public-sector school teachers can boast of.
Yet the powers that be didn’t care. If nothing else appealed to them, they should have acted in the case to save a teacher’s life in appreciation of his services to education.
It is useless to speculate what course Dr Zulfiqar Ali Khan’s life would have taken had he been allowed to live and continue to teach.
I called his brother to ask how Zulfiqar’s daughters were doing and was relieved when he informed me that they had continued their studies and that both were in college now. So he managed to inspire them as well though he must have met them periodically as per the rules of the jail manual over a span of 17 years.
I thought of another prisoner I wrote about who was also on death row, though he was a minor when he was alleged to have committed a murder, which he didn’t. He was fortunate as he had the services of a good lawyer and could walk away free from Haripur jail. He is Sohail Zia.
He also loved books and wanted to educate people — and because he was acquitted he is doing just that. When I contacted him he told me that for the last five years he has been the coordinator at the Customs Health Care where he supervises their schools and also teaches English to FSc classes in a college in Swat. Meanwhile, he is also upgrading his education as his goal is to become an educationist.
Since his release from prison he has passed his BEd and will have an MEd degree by December. Then on to an MPhil.
For 12 years, books were Sohail’s companions in jail and senior and better educated prisoners were his teachers. Thus he could do what he is doing today — educating children. But this became possible because wisdom dawned on a kind judge.