Trying to see the human face of the sentenced to death

In the democratic Islamic republic of Pakistan the death penalty is being used for a variety of crimes, aiming to bring justice and end the impunity. 

This blog was orginally written for and published at Justice and Peace official website. 

“Games he used to play with the kids of his neighborhood. His mother’s homemade food. Conversations he used to have with his brothers and sisters. His first kiss.” These few but intense memories accompanied the last hours of a 16 year old boy, accused of murder, just a while before being led to the gallows of a Pakistani prison. Not few, over 400 people have been executed in Pakistan under the law of the death penalty, the last five years. Not only, committers of murders, kidnaps, terrorist attacks and rapes are being punished by hanging, the most common method of execution in the country, also adultery, apostasy and military offense have already costed many lives. No matter, if the convict is underage, physical or mentally disabled, the punishment remains as cruel as always used to be, for every case. The lawyer Aanya from Pakistan introduces the local justice system and the changes that have been made in her society the past few years.

Which particular communities do you represent with your organisation?

I work in advocacy for a human rights organisation. Our goal is to provide legal representation to vulnerable prisoners, who face the hardest punishments. Most of the time they are prisoners who have been sentenced to death penalty and suffer from mental illnesses, tortures or physical disabilities. We also provide assistance to Pakistani immigrants who face the death penalty in other countries. With my work I have to contact the parliamentarian and policy makers in Pakistan, the international human rights ambassador and the diplomatic community outside of Pakistan in order to provide the greatest possible protection.

Do you build a relationship with your clients, the prisoners?

Visiting them in prison is not something we consider as part of our job, we believe it is our duty as human beings. We build a relationship not only with the prisoner but with the family too. We always pay extend attention to their cases. What we do is not common in Pakistan. We do so because we want to dive into the case and find out the key elements in order to represent the convict in the court. For example, it is very important for us to know if the convict has been tortured, bitten or faced any human rights violations. When someone suffers from mental illness, it is necessary to meet the suspect and discuss about the situation. how is it possible to consider a mentally disabled person guilty of a crime? We want to give them space, to understand both their own and their families suffering.

What is the attitude of society towards prisoners?

All prisoners are faced as criminals and it is very hard for the public to understand their individual situation, even if they have faced human rights violations and harassments. Through several campaigns we aim to show the human face of the sentenced to death and explain that they are ordinary people, who most of times have been victims of the criminal injustice Pakistani system.

The regulation has always been the same?

Six years ago the situation was different. People were still sentenced to death penalty but they weren’t sent to execution. After the massive terrorist attack in Pakistan on December 2014, which costed the lives of many children, the Pakistani government decided to vote for new regulations, by establishing execution for every long-term convict, even if the crime was of less importance. The problem is, that even if they took this policy against terrorism, the majority of the prisoners is not charged for terrorism. Since that time the State has executed 420 people.

What kind of methods are followed by the authorities before they reach the guilty?

The police is so inefficient and the judging system is so bad. The prisoners are not always the real culprits. Lots of times when the police lacks of evidence, it tends to torture the culprit until he confesses. One of our clients, accused of kidnap, was being tortured for 7 days. After that, without having any sense of his situation he confessed that he had committed the crime. Anyone would have done the same.

How the prisoners are treated in jail?

The majority of the prisoners face human rights violations and only those who can afford for a lawyer can be somehow saved. The most vulnerable communities are the real victims, because there is no one to speak on their behalf. For example, one of our clients is sentenced to death penalty for committing murder. When he first entered to the jail he was a full healthy man. After a while he got sick but he had never been visited by a doctor to examine him. Now he is disabled from the neck and down and the government still wants to execute him. Many have also been sentenced to death penalty since they were little children.

What kind of problems the juveniles face?

If any underage is convicted to imprisonment, he/she first should be sent to penitentiaries and afterwards lead to the court. However, this happens few times. Only 32% of the Pakistani population is registered. That means that the majority can’t prove who they are or bring documents to the court. So, the police by actually guessing, they write down an age and sends the suspects to prison.

What are the main issues that make the prisoner system in Pakistan inefficient?

There is no public or government support. The biggest problem is located in the criminal justice system. The number of human rights violations is immense. We struggle to bring a change. The authorities normally don’t see the other side of the argument. For example, mental illness is not recognized. And such kind of prisoners are not considered as people who shouldn’t be executed. Dealing with such kind of pressure is so stressful and harsh to cope with. But there is hope as well, some cases have been reviewed which is something positive. We are moving to a positive direction. If we also have a look at the figures since 2014, the number of executions shows a slight reduction. Fewer prisoners have been executed and less cases have been sentenced with the death penalty. The situation is still bad but not irreversible.

What do you seek to accomplish with your work ?

A more fair system, where justice will have its headquarters and the human rights of prisoners are not violated. A system where women and men will be equally treated and the levels of discrimination will be eliminated.

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