Execution freeze leaves Pakistan's hangmen idle

A moratorium in Pakistan against the death penalty has been welcomed by human rights activists who say that Pakistan’s police and prosecution system lacks the competency to produce reliable convictions.

His house is by a graveyard. His favorite haunt – a makeshift men’s club where fellow Christians while away the day sipping tea and singing folk songs – is a large carpet spread beneath an old tree in a graveyard. For Sabir Masih, one of three hangmen in Pakistan’s most populous Punjab province, death is a way of life.

“As you know, in Islam and in Christianity the response to death is death,” says the tall, dark-skinned hangman. “And that’s the way it should be.”

But for the past two years, Pakistan’s gallows have remained unused, and Mr. Masih has showed up at work, at Lahore’s infamous Kot Lakhpat jail, just to collect his pay checks. That’s because, since 2009, Pakistan’s civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has refused to sign execution papers for some 8,000 prisoners on death row.

“Our opposition to the death penalty is on compassionate grounds. We feel if the death penalty can be avoided, that is good,” says Farhatullah Babar, a parliamentarian and spokesman for President Asif Ali Zardari.

The moratorium has been welcomed by human rights activists who say that Pakistan’s police and prosecution system lacks the competency to produce reliable convictions. It’s also a rare positive in a country where human rights abuses are all too common.

Prior to the moratorium in 2009, hangings in Pakistan had increased annually under the military-ruler President Pervez Musharraf. According to figures compiled by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 134 hangings took place in Pakistan in 2007, placing it among the world’s top executioners, alongside China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United States.

“Given that the miscarriage of justice is widespread, given there is nothing resembling due process, stopping the death penalty is only the humane course of action,” says Ali Dayan Hassan, a Pakistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. “We are of the view that the death penalty should be abolished,” he adds.

Still, Pakistan's police force is considered one of its weakest institutions and is often criticized for chronic corruption and cultural prejudices affecting women and religious minorities in the country. Though the death-penalty is currently inactive, extra-judicial killings remain common.

Back at the gallows...

“At times I would have to hang five men in one day,” recalls Masih, adding that he, personally, has over 200 executions to his credit. The hanging profession is something of a family tradition for Masih: His grandfather hung Bhagat Singh, a socialist freedom fighter who sought independence from British rule in 1931, while his grand-uncle hung former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1979. These days, he spends much of his time at his club reminiscing about the “good days” with his friends.

Of those he executed, he says, “Most would beg forgiveness from Allah. Some accepted their guilt. Once, I hung a pair of brothers, before dawn, who came to the gallows singing a song ‘Hush stars, the day is coming and you won’t be seen.’”

Death by a Christian?

Some protested at being executed by a Christian, though their complaints went unheeded. Christians are the largest minority in Pakistan’s Punjab province (their estimated is population is about 6 million), and often take jobs that Muslims consider too lowly or vulgar, such as waste collection. All three of Punjab’s executioners are Christian, says Masih.

According to Pakistan’s Sharia law, a murderer may be pardoned if blood money is paid to the victim’s family. When a family fell short of the full-amount, says Masih, prison staff would organize a collection among themselves in order to avoid an execution if at all possible. Sometimes, they would still fall short. “The system of justice is loaded against the poor, and that lack of financial means puts those accused of death penalty offenses at a serious disadvantage,” says Najim U Din, a researcher at HRCP.

Pakistan’s Sharia laws also make it difficult for the government to make the moratorium permanent by changing the law, says Mr. Babar. At present, those awaiting the death sentence have had their executions postponed indefinitely, because, according to some interpretations of the law, the president may not pardon a murderer if the victim’s family has decided he or she should be awarded death. “We would need a cross-party consensus to change the constitution. Many consider abolition un-Islamic,” he says.

Meanwhile, according to Mr. U Din, death penalty offenses remain on the statute books and courts continue to award the death penalty on the pre-moratorium rates. Should a new government find itself in power following elections in 2013, Masih may find he’s back in business.

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