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February 21, 2012

We are all prisoners

 
February 21, 2012

On March 28, 1757, Robert-Francois Damiens became the last Frenchman to suffer the dreadful punishment of drawing and quartering.
A domestic servant who attempted to assassinate King Louis XV, Damiens was condemned to public execution before the main door of the Church of Paris, where he was to be “taken and conveyed in a cart... holding a torch of burning wax weighing two pounds... where, on a scaffold that will be erected there, the flesh will be torn from his breasts, arms, thighs and claves with red-hot pincers, his right hand, holding the knife with which he committed the said parricide, burnt with sulphur, and, on those places where the flesh will be torn away, poured molten lead, boiling oil, burning resin, wax and sulphur melted together and then his body drawn and quartered by four horses and his limbs and body consumed by fire, reduced to ashes and his ashes thrown to the winds.”
Though Damiens’ attack had only inflicted on the king a slight wound, he was torn to pieces as if his crime had been consummated. And that was that.
Two hundred and fifty-five years after the last public execution of this kind in Europe, seven men who have come to be known as the Adiala prisoners were produced before the Supreme Court in Islamabad. Few who saw them limping into the full courtroom – seven human skeletons wearing their ragged clothes and calloused skin – will forget the sense of mingled grief, horror and rage which rose in their hearts that overcast Monday morning.
The next day, having beheld the image of barely recognisable humanity her sons had been reduced to, the mother of two of the detainees died of what the papers reported was a heart attack. In the real world, few would list grief, or horror, as a cause of death.
What magnified the shock was this question: What kind of audacity does it take to dispose of citizens in the name of punishment, nay justice, and then present the fruits of slow torture as theatre? Wouldn’t public

exposure of these violent excesses work to the security agencies’ disadvantage? A young man, his culpability not yet confirmed, reduced to a limping heap holding a urine bag? Even the chief justice recoiled in horror and said the sight had invoked the fear of God in him. Guilty or innocent, the detainees’ condition shook the conscience of the public at large.
Why would the agencies willingly open up their excesses to widespread criticism in the manner in which has happened since the Adiala prisoners first appeared in court?
Because the guardians of the state in Pakistan are themselves a kind of prisoner: prisoners of the belief that they are the sole possessors of the truth; prisoners whose own ideas and theories about what is and isn’t good for the country have become the ball and chain that keep them shackled to the walls of a dungeon we know only as ‘the national interest.’
In the shadows of this vault, the most extravagant errors have become established articles of our guardians’ faith and the most abominable offences have subsequently obtained in their practice – committed with impunity and authorised by the sanction of some clandestine laws that us mere mortals don’t understand. Or aren’t supposed to. Our job is only to look upon the works of the mighty and despair.
In a sense, then, we are all prisoners here in Pakistan.
And wasn’t that the other reason the agencies finally produced seven of the Adiala 11 before the court?
Damiens’ public torture and execution in 1757 was a way for the powers that be to exercise their power over someone they felt had betrayed them. The spectacle was all at once a way to uphold the law publicly but also a form of confession for the criminal and an instrument of terror for the masses. Public execution was to be understood not only as a judicial ritual but also as a political one: a way of manifesting power.
Except in most uncivilised societies, such forms of punishment have long been abandoned. Reflecting the viciousness of the original ‘crime’ onto the convict’s body for all to see; taking the law to be an extension of the state’s body and hence necessitating that revenge be exacted upon the convict’s body itself – these are ideas that have long stopped governing punishment in the modern world.
But here in Pakistan – where the justice system is hopelessly damaged, and where the guardians of national interest get to decide not just who is a criminal but also which criminals are enemies of the state – there was little chance of the Adiala 11 being punished in the ways in which punishment has come to be understood around the world.
Not here, no. Here, the truly powerful feed pain and terror to the masses like fast food while they dine on the most exclusive delicacy of all – impunity. That is how the law works here: by leaving behind the gift of grief, these souvenirs of pain that the Adiala 11 have become in the public imagination.
But while pain has limits, apprehension has none. At the hands of a punitive state, you and me are left not only to grieve for what we know has happened, but also to endlessly fear all that possibly may happen.
In a sense, then, we are all prisoners here in Pakistan.

The writer is an assistant editor at The News. Email: [email protected]

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