Muhammad Azam has spent more years in a death row cell in Karachi than he has outside prison. Jail records trace his journey into a broken criminal justice system to 1998 when he was arrested at the age of 17 and detained at the Youthful Offenders Industrial School in Karachi.
Relying on a confession extracted through brutal torture, Azam was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court in 1999. In 2000, the Juvenile Justice Systems Ordinance 2000 granted protection to all juvenile offenders from the death penalty and a presidential notification issued in 2001 extended the protection to all those who, like Azam, had been sentenced before the law came into force.
In compliance with the new directives, the prison authorities in 2004 forwarded a request to the ATC for the commutation of Azam’s sentence. Despite the unequivocal language of the law, the court refused to honour the jail’s request and condemned Azam to a lifetime on what has been described as the world’s largest death row.
The arbitrariness and injustice in Azam’s case permeates every corner of the criminal justice system that upholds the application of the death penalty in Pakistan. In October 2016, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers from Bahawalpur only to find that they had already been executed the year before. The oversight hardly amounted to an abnormality in dealing with a death row population in which, according to the Ansar Burney Trust, over 60 percent are innocent.
As the global community marks the 15th World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10, Pakistan has taken its place amongst the world’s fifth largest executioners, with over 480 total executions since a six-year moratorium was lifted in December 2014.
With only 16 percent of all executions being for terrorism crimes, the burden of Pakistan’s death penalty falls on the most vulnerable of its populations. The estimated death row population of at least 6,000 constitutes the poor, the destitute, juvenile offenders and mentally ill and physically disabled prisoners. The rich, able and politically connected are nowhere to be found within the walls of the country’s eight-by-ten feet death row cells.
Political marginalisation of the condemned groups not only leads to discrimination at the time of sentencing but also impacts their march to the gallows. In a recent study by Justice Project Pakistan, it was discovered that executions were increasingly utilised by prison authorities to “make room” in overcrowded prisons.
It is apparent that the marginalised death row population has become the ideal pawn in the struggle to convince the populace that it is winning the war on terror. The political currency of the death penalty clearly overpowers the need to take into account humanitarian concerns.
Despite the human rights violations that characterise Pakistan’s death row, the government of Pakistan has failed to exercise the constitutional power of mercy in even a single case. This includes the case of Abdul Basit, a death-row prisoner who became paralysed after contracting tubercular meningitis that was left untreated by prison authorities. Since his execution was stayed in 2015 on humanitarian grounds, the government has failed to take any decision on whether to execute him or pardon him. For the past two years, Basit and his family fear that they will wake up to an execution warrant.
On the World Day Against the Death Penalty, Pakistan faces the daunting task of defending its decision to enforce the death penalty from scathing criticism through three consecutive UN Human Rights Treaty Body reviews. First, Pakistan must reduce the number of laws that merit the death penalty from an astounding 27 crimes to only the most serious of offences. Second, Pakistan must ensure that vulnerable groups – such as juvenile offenders and mentally disabled prisoners – are protected from being sentenced to death and from execution. Third, Pakistan must introduce transparent and effective processes to consider clemency petitions rather than continuing its protection of rejecting them en masse.
It cannot be denied that the Ministry of Human Rights has demonstrated its commitment to close the gaps of our criminal justice system. Acknowledging of the urgency of the problem can only spring forward what we need most: reform.
The writer is the head of advocacy at Justice Project Pakistan.