By Fatima Bhutto
March 17, 2015
Shafqat Hussain, the youngest of seven children, came to Karachi from Kashmir in search of work in 2003. Having struggled with a learning disability, Shafqat failed in school. He was 13 years old when he dropped out, barely able to read or write. He sought refuge in a metropolis that had no space to give and was quickly relegated to the city’s fringes. He never saw his parents again.
When he was 14, still four years under Pakistan’s legal age of adulthood, Shafqat was detained illegally by the police and severely beaten. The boy was held in solitary confinement, his genitals were electrocuted and he was burned with cigarette butts. The policemen interrogating him removed three of his fingernails. Sadly, Shafqat’s case was not the exception. It was the rule. He was told that he would never escape police custody or his torturers until he confessed to a crime he did not commit, the murder of a 7-year-old boy.
Shafqat was then falsely convicted on charges of kidnapping and murder, and sentenced to death.
His eldest brother, Manzoor, spoke to the BBC last December about Shafqat’s confession under torture. “When I asked him about torture in custody,” Manzoor said to the press, Shafqat “started shivering and wet his pants. He put both his hands on his head and starting crying, saying, ‘Don’t ask, I can’t tell you what they did.”’ The only evidence the courts had against him was a confession he made after nine days of being tortured in a police cell.
Shafqat was not tried as a juvenile. Nor was he given access to a lawyer when presented with the charges against him. His mother hasn’t seen her son in 10 years. She cannot afford to travel to Karachi to see Shafqat now, before he is to be killed.
After a seven-year moratorium, Pakistan recently reinstated the death penalty. After the most horrific terror attack the country has faced, the murder of over 100 children at the Army Public School in Peshawar on Dec. 16, the Pakistani government decided to counter violence with violence.
There was no moment of reflection, no introspection, only a knee-jerk call for vengeance. In Pakistan, blood will always have blood. The state lifted the moratorium on the death penalty and introduced military courts — neither of which are known to be great deterrents to crime.
The military courts, where presiding judges and prosecutors come from army ranks, are a controversial addition to Pakistan’s deeply flawed and ineffectual judicial system. Like Pakistan’s contentious Antiterrorism Courts, they have ostensibly been formed to try terrorism cases, though their jurisdiction is likely to expand over time.
There are currently more than 8,000 people on death row in Pakistan. Close to 1,000 convicts who have exhausted their appeals are set to face the gallows. Thirty-nine people have already been executed.
Shafqat is scheduled to be hanged on Thursday.
More than two months after Pakistan’s Interior Ministry stayed his execution and ordered an inquiry into why a juvenile was placed on death row, Pakistan’s Antiterrorism Courts have issued a fresh execution order.
These draconian courts were set up in 1997 under statutory, not constitutional law; they operate on the premise that the accused is guilty unless able to prove himself innocent. Defendants cannot be granted bail in these courts and as such they have commonly been used in politically motivated cases, rather than to curb crime.
Shafqat Hussain has now spent 11 years on death row on charges that have nothing to do with terrorism. He was not a militant; he worked, during his brief spell of freedom in Karachi, as a caretaker at an apartment building. He impacts national security in no way.
Reinstating the death penalty is a moral catastrophe for Pakistan. For those who argue the facile logic of an eye for an eye, it is worth noting that in Pakistan the charges of blasphemy, apostasy and adultery are also punishable by death.
In an era of unrepentant violence, intolerance and injustice, it is our duty to raise our voices for compassion. Pakistan cannot claim to be just or democratic when it provides security to officials from the banned Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat, a violent and extremist sectarian group, and puts to death innocent juveniles.
Fatima Bhutto is the author of the novel “The Shadow of the Crescent Moon” and a memoir, “Songs of Blood and Sword.”