July Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Convicted child-killer Shafqat Hussain got another lease of life when his execution, scheduled for June 9, was stayed for the fourth time, barely a few hours before the hanging. On whose orders the jail superintendent deferred the execution initially appeared a mystery as both the President House and the Ministry of Interior denied issuing any such directives. Also, there were no court orders to save Hussain’s life.

Jail authorities maintain that it was the Sindh government which managed to prevent Shafqat’s hanging, using the argument that another hearing of the case was due the following day.

The stay prompted an angry response from the federal government, underlining the fact that the tussle over Shafqat Hussain’s fate is far from over. In fact, this tussle has become a defining one in Pakistan where Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014, following the deadly attack on an army-run public school in Peshawar. And then, in March 2015, the government lifted the remaining moratorium on the death penalty for all heinous crimes under the constitution.

The anti-death penalty campaigners were caught off-guard, as a broad national agreement emerged on lifting the controversial moratorium on the death penalty placed by the former PPP government in 2008. The moratorium had created a dichotomy in Pakistan’s legal system whereby the judiciary kept on handing down the death penalty under the constitution, but the executive arm was not implementing those orders.

A few human rights campaigners, and the Justice Project Pakistan  headed by Sarah Bilal, went for an indirect approach to campaign against the death penalty by picking up Shafqat Hussain’s case. They alleged that Shafqat was under-age — barely 14 years old or so — when convicted for the kidnapping and murder of a seven-year-old child in 2004. Pakistan’s constitution bars capital punishment for persons under the age of 18 years. These groups also maintain that Shafqat’s confession was gleaned through torture.

They presented a set of documents, including the birth certificate of the convicted killer, but Pakistan’s superior judiciary rejected all of them. However, the police say Shafqat was allegedly 23 or 24 years old when the crime was committed, and working as a security guard at the Karachi apartment building from where the boy was kidnapped. The body of the victim was found based on information provided by him. They say Shafqat continued to make telephone calls to the victim’s family even after murdering the child, in a bid to obtain ransom, and was arrested red-handed when he came to collect the money.

From the anti-terrorism court, authorised to try kidnapping for ransom cases, to the superior judiciary — all upheld the death verdict handed down to Shafqat. His appeal for clemency was rejected by the president. Surprisingly, all through his trial, the question of Shafqat’s age was never raised.

The IHC on May 21 dismissed the petition put forward by the Justice Project calling for the formation of a judicial commission to determine Hussain’s age and termed it unmaintainable. “Nothing has been placed before this court which would indicate any miscarriage of justice or a need for a probe,” IHC Justice Athar Minallah said.

However, for the moment, Shafqat’s hanging has been deferred on account of both local and foreign pressure.

Questions are now being raised about the ramifications of deciding cases on the basis of public perception or direct foreign or local pressure. Is it a desirable trend? Should state institutions and the government yield to such pressure? Would it not undermine that country’s entire judicial system?

Should a country that has witnessed the murder of more than 60,000 people by terrorists and extremists over the last one decade abolish the death sentence? Do the EU countries face similar challenges of crime and lawlessness like Pakistan?

Justice must prevail at every cost in line with the constitution of Pakistan.

Amir Zia is a senior Pakistani journalist, currently working as the Chief Editor of HUM News. He has worked for leading media organisations, including Reuters, AP, Gulf News, The News, Samaa TV and Newsline.