On death-row: The living dead men of Pakistan

Published: March 19, 2014
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Eight by twelve feet – that’s how big most prison cells are for anyone who is sentenced to death in Pakistan. An inmate on death-row is kept in this cell until his execution takes place. PHOTO: REUTERS

Eight by twelve feet – that’s how big most prison cells are for anyone who is sentenced to death in Pakistan. An inmate on death-row is kept in this cell until his execution takes place.  PHOTO: FILE Eight by twelve feet – that’s how big most prison cells are for anyone who is sentenced to death in Pakistan. An inmate on death-row is kept in this cell until his execution takes place. PHOTO: REUTERS

Eight feet by six feet – that’s how big most prison cells are for anyone who is sentenced to death in Pakistan. An inmate on death-row is kept in this cell until his execution takes place which, because of the 2008 moratorium on the death penalty, cannot lawfully happen anymore. 

Although the moratorium ended in July 2013, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to reinstate it indefinitely. His government had initially stated that:

“The present government does not plan to extend it (the moratorium)”

However, mainly because of European pressure, the moratorium was reinstated till a point when the president and the prime minister can have a discussion on the topic. Until then, these prisoners are to reside in tiny cells, with life at a complete halt.

According to Amnesty International, Pakistan’s death-row population by 2010 was the largest in the world, at 8,000. This is close to half of the global total.

2006 survey showed that, on an average, seven to eight prisoners are put into the eight by six feet prison cells. The legal system refers to these prisoners as ‘condemned prisoners’ and they have a completely different regime commanding them inside their detention centres.

In Punjab, the condemned prisoners are only allowed a half hour ‘walk’ (with shackles tied on their hands and feet) in the morning and another half hour in the evening. The prisoners are not allowed any visitors and they are undernourished.

There are 27 crimes that can warrant a death sentence in Pakistan, ranging from murder, possession of 100 or more grams of narcotics, blasphemy or even forcefully stripping a woman off her clothes in public, to name a few. Hardly any free and fair trials are conducted, and even when they are, the investigation is seldom done properly.

The appeal system is incredibly slow, which leads to condemned prisoners often spending decades on death-row and then being let off on a successful appeal – having spent a large part of their lives in prison.

These condemned prisoners are different from those who get sentenced to life imprisonment, as they are still regarded as ‘living’, keeping in mind that their sentence is of ‘life’ imprisonment. The condemned prisoners, however, have been sentenced to ‘death’; so, if the law does not allow their killing on a bodily or physical level, the system ensures that their souls are indeed dead.

A former death-row inmate, whose sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, spoke of the “unbearable anguish” of being on death-row. He added:

“I stopped eating regularly, stopped being interested in anything. Facing death in this way is the worst torture I could have imagined”. (Human Rights Commission of Pakistan)

Unlike other prisoners, prisoners on death-row are not allowed to have a television in their cell. They are, however, allowed a radio but are not allowed to work in the prison, nor are they allowed to partake in any other outdoor prison activities.

They are excluded from all social activities organised on the jail’s premises, such as sports trainings and competitions, computer science courses and the likes. What they are allowed is access to books from the jail library and they are also entitled to request the visit of a spiritual leader, once every week.

Despite the conditions these ‘living dead’ prisoners have to face, and despite repeated moratoriums that clearly display that capital punishment cannot exist in a country that wishes to abide by and maintain cordial relations with the rest of the world, law makers still refuse to budge when it comes to a complete abolishment of the death penalty.

Time stands still for the condemned prisoners. Breathing and living they might be but life ceases to exist inside their bodies.

Are you for or against the death penalty?

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Hamza Hameed

Hamza Hameed

An aspiring lawyer and an LLB student in the University of London external program at SZABIST. He tweets as @HamzaHameed007 (twitter.com/HamzaHameed007)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • sundas

    Hameed appreciate you for your effort to bring up the ignored subject of convicted prisoners’ rights. they are certainly bound to be punished…but not to become victims theirselves by receiving a treatment which is inhumane and not-approved on legal, ethical and religious grounds.Recommend

  • sundas

    luxury at a cost of small money? undeniably convicted criminals get privileges for being influential but “luxury” (yes, luxury not minor benefits) being provided for small money in jail, every commoner living in misery may have considered killing someone. Recommend

  • fze

    As you sow so shall you reap. Its up to you whether you want to reap here or in the hereafter. This “hamdardi” for killers is beyond me.Recommend

  • Malaika Harris

    Really surprised and happy that most the people who voted were against the death penalty. Didn’t see that coming!Recommend

  • Abbas Khalid

    From your article i can safely say you have not been inside a jail in Pakistan. For a small amount of money these death row prisoners can live a life of relative luxury Their cases linger on till the defendants get tired and compromise.Recommend

  • Syed Bukhari

    AA
    A rather rae topic, but still very relevant to our society. Though I am not against the death penalty in principle, I totally agree that the judicial system in Pakistan raises some serious questions about it. We also need to decide the fate of these men and women..
    I have, however, two suggestions:
    1. With your background, you would be able to suggest a solution. You have described the problem well.
    2. You could also add a section on women who are convicted and are awaiting death penalty. How are their problems differnet from men?

    But all in all, brilliant article. Keep up the good work.

    Kind regards;
    SyedRecommend

  • Moiz Omar

    I believe in the death penalty, but only for murderers, rapists and acid throwers.Recommend

  • shoaib

    What a calculation 125 Votes = 44% and 122 Votes = 56% while their is no third option to vote for.Recommend

  • Imran

    I think first priority should be rights of free and deprived people in our society, whom neither our system support nor society. Considering someone is framed ‘criminals’ suspend death sentence is sufficient. Current need is to speed up snail speed process of judiciary and transparent investigation.Recommend