By Zubeida Mustafa
ZULFIQAR Ali, a prisoner on death row in Adiala jail since April 1998, is to be hanged. There is confusion about the date.
Since September 2008 when President Asif Zardari rejected Zulfiqar`s final mercy petition, the condemned prisoner has been granted three stays of execution. The last expired on May 6.
But Zulfikar Ali`s case calls for immediate attention. True there are over 7,000 prisoners on death row in Pakistan. True they all deserve to be taken note of because there has been a strong opinion building up in the country against capital punishment as has been witnessed worldwide. Today 133 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice.
Why I add my voice to the pleas from many quarters for Zulfiqar`s amnesty is because he is a man who deserves to live. In a country where good teachers are a rarity it would be a pity if a man who loves teaching is sent to the gallows. I may not even have known about Zulfiqar and how he has been dodging the noose had Reprieve (a London-based NGO working for condemned prisoners) represented by three determined lawyers, Sultana Noon, Sarah Belal and Nadia Rehman, not worked so hard to collect the facts of the case and prepare petitions to obtain a stay of execution.
A man who has been so devoted to teaching as Zulfiqar has been even while his life hung in the balance, must surely have something in him that should not be allowed to die. In the 11 years that he has been behind bars, he has improved his own academic qualifications and has gone on to educate hundreds of prisoners — some of them were totally illiterate before their encounter with the man now called `the educator` in Adiala jail. His performance has been stellar 12 have graduated, 23 have passed their Intermediate while 18 have done their matriculation thanks to his tutoring.
While pleading for mercy from the president, his legal petitioners cite “mitigating circumstances” — two minor daughters who are motherless, his excellent behaviour in prison towards fellow prisoners which would have won him parole in different circumstances, his contribution to the Pakistan Navy as a physical training instructor and as an inspiring teacher in the prison`s rehabilitation programme and the circumstances in which the murder took place and that give credibility to Zulfiqar`s claim that it was not premeditated. On these grounds the Reprieve lawyers have pleaded for his death sentence to be commuted.
For decades human rights activists have opposed the death penalty worldwide for reasons that are well known — and carry great weight. Amnesty International that has campaigned against capital punishment for decades insists that it “has no place in a modern criminal justice system, since it violates the right to life, and the right not to be subjected to any cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment”. Besides, the death penalty has not proved to be an effective deterrent as the rising crime rates in the “high executioners” show.
There is also the risk of the miscarriage of justice as quite often innocent people have been indicted for crimes they did not commit. The probability of this is quite high in countries like Pakistan where the judicial and police system is weak and flawed.
Another serious concern expressed by Amnesty is that the death penalty is used “disproportionately against the poor and minority groups, and as a tool of political repression”. This has been clearly established by a study carried out by Amnesty International India and People`s Union for Civil Liberties Tamil Nadu in 2008 which went through the Indian Supreme Court judgments in death penalty cases in 1950-2006.
Its conclusion reads, “Whether an accused is ultimately sentenced to death or not is an arbitrary matter, a decision reliant on a number of extremely variable and often subjective factors — ranging from the competence of legal representation, to the interest of the state in the case to the personal views and even idiosyncrasies of the judges who hear the case.” Unsurprisingly, it observes, “The less wealth and influence a person has the more likely is he to be sentenced to death.”
And this holds true of Zulfiqar Ali as well. He says, “Owing to my poor financial state, I could not afford the fee of a good lawyer and ultimately ended up losing my case.” His brother points out that Zulfiqar was defended by a lawyer provided by the state who was not even interested in this case. He did not even bother to show up in court when the sentence was pronounced!
All these arguments against capital punishment deserve careful, sympathetic and immediate hearing. The matter acquires urgency because human lives are at stake. And what about the prime minister`s promise to the National Assembly on what would have been Benazir Bhutto`s 55th birthday — June 21, 2008 — that all prisoners on death row in Pakistan would have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. This proposal was approved by the cabinet and reaffirmed by President Zardari when he took oath of office in September.
But thereafter the government`s stance has slipped into a grey area of ambiguity. It didn`t respond to the HRCP`s appeal that it should announce a moratorium on the death penalty. This would be in line with the December 2007 resolution of the UN Assembly adopted by 104 to 54. Regrettably, this fell on deaf ears and Amnesty International reports that over 15 executions have been carried out after the June announcement and what is more in October 2008 the scope of application of the death penalty was expanded to include cyber crimes.
But there is still a silver lining, as I.A. Rehman, HRCP director, pointed out to me. The number of executions in Pakistan dropped from 134 in 2007 to 36 in 2008.
This is a positive development. But why is the government wavering? After all, the PPP`s stance has been vehemently against capital punishment. Soon after taking office in 1971, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto raised the minimum life imprisonment term from 14 to 25 years with the idea of eventually abolishing capital punishment. Before he could do anything he himself was overthrown and hanged. On her accession to power in 1988, Benazir Bhutto commuted the death sentences of prisoners on death row. This trend must be carried forward and let a reprieve for Zulfiqar Ali signal the end of capital punishment in Pakistan.