Scaffold looms for Pakistani convicted as teen
ISLAMABAD: Condemned for murder when he was a teenager, Shafqat Hussain could be one of the next to go to the gallows in Pakistan’s wave of executions that follows a Taliban school massacre.
The country last week ended its moratorium on the death penalty in terror cases in the aftermath of the slaughter at an army-run school in the northwestern city of Peshawar.
Heavily-armed Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) gunmen murdered 149 people, 133 of them schoolchildren, in an attack that shocked the world and brought promises of swift and decisive action by the government and military.
Six prisoners have gone to the gallows since Friday and government officials said on Monday there are plans to execute another 500 in the coming weeks.
Pakistan set up anti-terrorism courts in 1997 to speed up trials, which often drag on interminably in the sclerotic and overloaded justice system.
But critics say the special courts are often misused to try ordinary criminal cases and many of those convicted have no connection with militant groups — although they now face the hangman’s noose.
Rights groups say Hussain’s case typifies the way anti-terror courts are being misused.
“Who are we hanging? Let there be no doubt that many of those who are set to be led to the gallows are simply not terrorists,” said Sarah Belal of the Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm which works with death row cases.
– Confession, retraction –
In April 2004 Hussain was working as a watchman in Karachi, Pakistan’s sprawling and violent port metropolis, when a seven-year-old boy named Umair went missing from the neighbourhood.
A few days later Umair’s family received calls from Hussain’s mobile demanding a ransom of half a million rupees ($8,500 at the time), according to legal papers seen by AFP.
The family reported to police and Hussain was arrested. During his first interrogation he admitted kidnapping and killing Umair, whose body was found in a plastic bag in a stream.
He later withdrew his confession, saying he had made it under duress, but the case came before an anti-terrorism court which sentenced him to death.
He was aged only 15 at the time, according to court documents.
Therefore he should have been tried in a juvenile court and not been given the death penalty, which cannot be imposed on minors in Pakistan, according to Amnesty International.
The case went to appeal but Hussain’s age was not seen as any reason to overturn the sentence.
His family wrote to urge the president to commute Hussain’s sentence to life imprisonment, but without success, and Hussain’s name came up again after the six-year moratorium was lifted.
– Torture claims –
Jail authorities in Karachi, where Hussain has now been held for a decade, asked on Friday for his death warrant to be signed, to the horror of his family and groups supporting him.
“The authorities applying the death penalty to terrorists, no problem for me, but they’re going down the wrong road executing ordinary criminals,” Hussain’s older brother Gul Zaman told a foreign news agency by phone.
Reporters tried to meet Husain in prison last year but jail authorities refused permission, citing security threats.
Amnesty International’s Chiara Sangiorgio said Hussain’s case was not isolated — at least seven other death row prisoners claim they were under 18 when they committed their offences. Two were convicted by anti-terrorism courts.
“The majority of people in Pakistan do not have a birth certificate, so it becomes very difficult for them to prove that they are juvenile… unless they have a good lawyer,” she said.
In the trauma that has gripped Pakistan since last Tuesday’s attack, rights campaigners fear justice will be sacrificed in the name of the fight against terror.
On Saturday, the day after the first hangings, Human Rights Watch denounced them as “a craven politicised reaction to the Peshawar killings”.
Anti-death penalty campaign group Reprieve says Hussain was tortured into confessing and warned his death would do nothing to alleviate the pain of those who lost children in Peshawar.
“Killing a man who was arrested as a juvenile and tortured into a ‘confession’ will not bring justice -– it will merely add to the tragedy of the Peshawar school attack,” Reprieve’s director Clive Stafford Smith said.
For now, Reprieve says, Hussain’s family wait outside the prison every day. They have been told that preparations for his hanging have been finalised.