By Basharat Peer
January 12, 2015
The world might have never heard about Shafqat Hussain had Pakistan not briefly lifted its moratorium on executions. His case reflects a flagrant disregard for local and international rights and the harsh realities of Pakistan’s justice system
The night of the Pakistani Taliban massacre of schoolchildren in Peshawar, the Pakistan Army bombed Northern Waziristan. The next day, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted the moratorium on executions, which has been in place since 2008, for terrorism-related cases. Within two weeks of the massacre, Pakistan had hanged seven convicted terrorists. Six had been convicted of participating in the attempted assassination of then President Pervez Musharraf in 2003; the seventh was on the death row for his involvement in an attack on the Pakistan Army headquarters in 2009. Media reports now put the figure of those executed as between eight and 10 persons.
Last week, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the Interior Minister of Pakistan, announced at a press conference that Pakistan intends to hang about 500 prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offences within the next three weeks. Mr. Khan said that intelligence reports have predicted attempts at reprisals for the executions. “But we should not let our guard down if we want to avenge the victims of the Peshawar attack,” he said.
Pakistan has more than 8,000 people on death row. Its courts award death penalty for 27 types of offences, including murder, rape, kidnapping, drug trafficking, and blasphemy, and several terrorism-related crimes. In 2013, according to Amnesty International, Pakistan sentenced 226 people to death, compared to 80 in the United States. Yet the moratorium on death penalty had ensured that no such sentence was executed since 2008 with the exception of a soldier. (Military personnel are exempted from the moratorium.)
The executions of five more men have been scheduled for January 14, at Karachi Central Jail. All have been convicted of sectarian murders. There was also to have been a sixth, Shafqat Hussain, until, under immense public pressure, the government stayed his execution earlier this week. Hussain has been on death row since he was convicted, a decade ago, a few months before turning 14, of killing a seven-year-old boy.
Hussain’s journey mirrors the path hundreds of thousands of rural poor in South Asia take to its energetic, growing cities in search of work. He grew up in Neelam valley in Pakistan-controlled-Kashmir. Hussain dropped out of school after his father, a farmer, had a stroke and was unable to work. His beautiful mountain valley had no work to offer. In early 2004, when he was 13 years old, he left his village with a friend and made the long journey across multiple cultures, weather systems, and 1,300 miles to the megacity of Karachi.
Photographs are a luxury for the South Asian poor. The sole picture of Hussain is a portion torn out of a group photograph taken before he moved to Karachi: a wiry boy in a white shirt and a thick black mop of hair. His long, oval face is tense; his green eyes stare self-consciously into the camera.
Karachi is a centrifugal construction site of a city. Hussain found work as a watchman for a half-built apartment complex in the North Nazimabad area. He kept an eye on the building materials and slept at the construction site at night. After the apartment block was complete, Hanif Memon, a cloth merchant, and his family were among the first tenants to move in. Memon’s wife would often leave her children with Shafqat while she ran errands.
Claims and charges
On April 10, 2004, Memon’s seven-year-old son, Umair Memon, disappeared while he was playing hide and seek. Hussain accompanied the Memons to the police station to file a missing person’s report. The Memons received four calls from a person claiming to be the kidnapper, from public phones, demanding a ransom of 500,000 Pakistani rupees. Two phone calls in mid-April directed them to leave the ransom near a spring, a few miles from their home, but the kidnapper did not show up. Two more ransom calls in late April directed them to leave the money in a wooden box under a staircase in their building. The kidnapper did not turn up again but they suspected Hussain as he lived near the building staircase.
During the night of May 21, 2004, 42 days after the boy’s disappearance, police came to the apartment complex and arrested Hussain on suspicion of kidnapping and killing the boy. In Pakistan, any murder that is understood to instil fear in society is tried under anti-terrorism laws. The trial of Shafqat Hussain was held in August 2004 in an anti-terrorism court in Karachi.
The prosecutor accused Hussain of murdering Umair by “inflicting a wooden hammer blow to the skull of the minor resulting in his death.” The prosecutor claimed that he concealed the body in a plastic bag on the same night. He accused Hussain of making the calls seeking a ransom of 500,000 Pakistani rupees from Hanif Memon, and he alleged that Hussain led the police to the sewer where they found the boy’s body wrapped in a plastic bag.
Hussain replied that each of these charges was incorrect. “In fact, I was severely tortured by the police before the alleged discovery of the corpse, and I was asked by the Investigating Officer to admit whatever he wanted and to follow him to a sewer, where I would simply open the knot of certain clothes, which I did under pressure from the police,” Hussain said.
The prosecutor asked whether it was true that on the day the body was recovered he had taken the police to his apartment, where they had found the murder weapon, a wooden hammer used for grinding spices, and a pair of sandals that belonged to the boy.
“It is incorrect to suggest that. In fact at that time I was in prison. The police obtained the keys to my apartment from me and I don’t know what they did there,” Hussain said.
Finally the prosecutor asked Hussain about the confession he gave before a civil judge in Karachi, nine days after his arrest.
“I recorded my confessional statement under pressure from the police, as I was in handcuffs and the chain of handcuffs was in the hand of the police constable who was standing behind me. There, under pressure, I made that confessional statement. I was also subjected to torture,” he said.
On August 8, 2004, an anti-terror court in Karachi sentenced Hussain to death.
The Justice Project
The world might have never heard about Shafqat Hussain, had Pakistan not briefly lifted its moratorium on executions in August 2013. In the brief window before Pakistan reversed the decision, under pressure from the European Union, the names of convicts on the death row were made public. Sarah Belal and other lawyers at Justice Project Pakistan, a non-profit law firm in Lahore, took a particular interest in Hussain’s case.
Belal and her colleagues interviewed Hussain on death row. He told them that the police burned him with cigarettes and administered electric shocks to his genitals until he confessed to the murder of Umair Memon. “When I met him in prison, I saw the burn marks on his arm, which he said were there from the time the police put out lit cigarettes on him during the interrogation,” Belal told me.
The Justice Project also reviewed Hussain’s case files. They found that his state-appointed lawyer never asked that he be tried as a child offender and did not call a single witness in his defence. The anti-terrorism court ignored his statement that he had been tortured until he gave a confession and the Memon family’s statement that they did not recognise Hussain’s voice on the ransom calls. “The judge heard the calls himself and decided the voice was similar,” Ms. Belal said. The trial courts and appellate courts also disregarded Pakistan’s Juvenile Justice System Ordinance, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibit giving the death penalty to a person under 18 at the time of an alleged offence.
Ms. Belal also pointed out procedural problems with the police claims that Hussain had helped them recover the murder weapon and the body. Both recovery memos were supposed to have been signed by two independent witnesses. Instead, they were signed by Memon family members, “which is a sure-fire tell that recoveries were planted by the police,” Ms. Belal said.
Hussain’s case was debated in the Pakistani media for the past week, leading to growing public pressure to stay his execution. On Monday, the Interior Minister told Parliament that his government had decided to halt the execution and conduct an investigation of the case. On Wednesday, Justice Project Pakistan announced that prison authorities in Karachi had received a stay order on Hussain’s execution. “Shafqat is safe!” the Justice Project tweeted.
Others accused of crimes that fall under Pakistan’s broad definition of terrorism will be less fortunate. On Tuesday, the Pakistani Parliament approved a constitutional amendment and passed two bills to try those accused of terrorism in new military courts. On Wednesday, the country’s President, Mamnoon Hussain, signed into law the bills establishing military courts for terrorism cases.
In 1999 the Supreme Court of Pakistan had termed military courts unconstitutional. “The basic structure of the Constitution guarantees an independent judiciary, and military courts cannot be established in the presence of an independent judiciary,” Iftikhar Chaudhry, former Chief Justice of Pakistan, told the press last week. People tried in the military will not have recourse to appeals in civilian courts of Pakistan.
Despite concerns about civil liberties, the bill has broad political support. “The bitter pill of this new law is being swallowed for the security of Pakistan,” Opposition leader Syed Khursheed Ahmed Shah said.
Prisons in Pakistan have begun preparing for a season of hangings. “The gallows in Karachi Central Jail have been cleaned and cleared of dust,” the Express Tribune reported. A track indicating the path prisoners take to the gallows has been repainted white. “A jail officer has even bought two ropes, each of which is 25 feet long.”
Basharat Peer is the author of Curfewed Night.