On death-row: The living dead men of Pakistan
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.
A 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.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.