December issue 2006
The Other Side of the Gallows
Mirza Tahir Hussain and Jamshed Khan were young when fate brought them together at the Chaklala international airport in Rawalpindi on December 19, 1988. The former was returning home from the United Kingdom and had rented the latter’s cab to drive him to his village in Chakwal district. Tragedy cut short their journey with Mirza Tahir ending up in police custody for murdering Jamshed.
Mirza Tahir, an ethnic Punjabi settled in Leeds in West Yorkshire, UK, was 18 at the time of the incident. He was to spend the next 18 years in different Pakistani prisons. Lower and superior courts convicted him for murder, and thrice, dates were set for his execution this year. His life was saved as a result of a high-profile campaign during which the Prince of Wales, Prince Charles, Prime Minister Tony Blair, British and European Parliament MPs, human rights groups and the international media made pleas for clemency to the Pakistan government.
Mirza Tahir, now 36 with a graying beard, is back in the UK. His family has been celebrating his release and the mainstream media is full of stories praising President General Pervez Musharraf for commuting his death sentence to life imprisonment. It enabled him to walk out from prison a free man because he had already spent the required time in jail. Those against capital punishment in Pakistan and abroad hailed the President’s decision to pardon him. Mirza Tahir’s brother Amjad Hussain, who lives in the UK, was quoted as saying that by releasing Mirza Tahir, the President had proved himself to be a truly enlightened leader.
The family of Jamshed went almost unheard. They got few opportunities to tell their side of the story. Most newspapers didn’t even bother to seek their reaction to Mirza Tahir’s release.
Jamshed, a Pashtun tribesman from the Mohmand Agency and settled in Rawalpindi, was 22 when he died. His younger brother Gul Rabi, now 30, said Jamshed was a handsome young man at the time. “Jamshed was to get married a month later. Preparations for his wedding were in full swing and my mother was the happiest person around. Now she is the saddest in the family,” he remarked.
After spending a busy time receiving relations and friends who had come to console the family following Mirza Tahir’s release, Jamshed’s parents, uncles and cousins have now gone into a quiet period of mourning. His old father, Abdul Ghani and mother were stated to still be in shock. His 62-year-old uncle Haji Sohbat Khan, who spearheaded the legal battle to have Mirza Tahir convicted, said there was no use mounting another challenge in the courts after having seen how a presidential pardon overruled a judgement made by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the apex court in the country. He said nobody in Pakistan had the power to bring Mirza Tahir back to face trial. “Now we are looking to Allah’s court for justice. That is the supreme authority, and I am sure on the Day of Judgement we will be holding those who wronged us by the neck,” he contended.
Jamshed’s family belongs to the Mohmand tribal agency in the NWFP. They have relatives in their ancestral village of Ghalam Shah, inhabited by Musakhel Mohmands, near Mohammad Ghat in Mohmand Agency, which borders Afghanistan, and in Peshawar. Jamshed’s grandfather Rahmatullah moved to Rawalpindi before Pakistan’s independence and set up his business selling firewood. Some members later branched off into other small businesses, selling vegetables and driving cabs. The family lives in Chungi No.2 and has a house in R A Bazaar as well. Jamshed had five brothers and two sisters.
Sohbat Khan’s version of events that led to Jamshed’s murder is completely different from that of Mirza Tahir’s. He pointed out that Mirza Tahir gave three contradictory statements in court to justify acting in self-defence and show that Jamshed was killed inadvertently. “On one occasion, he alleged that Jamshed tried to sexually assault him. Another time he claimed Jamshed tried to snatch his money, and the gun went off during the ensuing struggle. He also gave a statement that a second Pakhtun man accompanying Jamshed attempted to take away his money and kill him,” argued Sohbat Khan. He also refuted Mirza Tahir’s claim that he drove to a police station after the incident and volunteered to surrender. “Mirza Tahir has made up this story. It isn’t true. It was gas station salesman Amjad Masood and restaurant owner Mir Dad, both running businesses on G T Road, who saw blood on the back seat of the car Mirza Tahir was driving and informed the police. I don’t have words to thank them because they belonged to Punjab and still gave statements in the case in support of the Pakhtun taxi-driver unknown to them to help establish the crime,” he explained.
The crime took place on the Grand Trunk Road at Sowan Camp, about 12 kilometres from Islamabad. According to Sohbat Khan, the station house officer of Sihala police station was sitting in Mir Dad’s restaurant eating dinner when Mirza Tahir drove the cab to the nearby petrol pump station to get fuel. He said Mirza Tahir, his clothes stained with blood, was caught red-handed along with the 32-bore pistol, dagger and rope used in the murder, and Jamshed’s body was recovered from roadside bushes. “We came to know about the murder the next morning when Jamshed’s cousin Rahmat Khan was sent to find him. We didn’t even lodge the First Information Report (FIR). The police registered the FIR the way it wanted, and it formed the basis for getting Mirza Tahir convicted in all the courts,” he recalled.
Sohbat Khan, a wiry man who did his matriculation from Rawalpindi and speaks fluent Urdu, refuted the claim that Mirza Tahir was coming to Pakistan for the first time after having left for the UK at the age of four. He narrated: “He had come to Pakistan six months earlier as well. Such statements are made to make him look innocent. As far as I know, Mirza Tahir was a habitual criminal. Another taxi driver, operating out of Chaklala airport, came forward with the claim after Mirza Tahir was arrested that he, too, had been robbed by the same man some time earlier. This cab driver recognised Mirza Tahir from his picture that appeared in newspapers after his arrest for murdering Jamshed.”
Explaining the sequence of court judgements in the case, Sohbat Khan said an additional sessions judge sentenced Mirza Tahir to death on September 30, 1989, and the sessions court upheld the verdict. He said the Lahore High Court sent the case to the Federal Shariat Court because an Islamic clause had been inserted into the FIR. “The High Court never acquitted Mirza Tahir, though this claim is often made in the media. The Lahore High Court didn’t give any judgement in the case,” he maintained. He said the Shariat Court gave Mirza Tahir the death sentence on September 20, 1998, and the Supreme Court upheld the decision on November 1, 2003. According to Sohbat Khan, the Supreme Appellate Board comprising five members and headed by Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar upheld the verdict on October 9, 2004. “President Musharraf rejected Mirza Tahir’s mercy petition on March 18, 2006. His death warrant was issued first on May 3, then on August 3 and the third time on November 1. Around this time, Prince Charles entered the scene, and then we heard he was visiting Pakistan and would be pleading with President Musharraf for clemency in Mirza Tahir’s case. On November 16, the President commuted Mirza Tahir’s death sentence and a convicted killer walked out of jail, was given VIP treatment and secretly flown out of Pakistan,” he said.
Jamshed’s brother Gul Rabi insisted that President Musharraf acted illegally while commuting Mirza Tahir’s death sentence. “The President had already exhausted his powers when he rejected the mercy petition. He, along with Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Interior Minister Aftab Sherpao, flouted the law of the land by releasing a man about to be awarded capital punishment. We got justice from the courts, but our rulers deprived us of our rights. Only the family had the right to forgive Mirza Tahir,” he contended.
An agitated Gul Rabi pointed out that his family not only lost Jamshed, but also suffered huge financial losses. He said for 18 years his family fought for justice in the courts and spent a lot of money in the process. “We couldn’t concentrate on our business. We cut expenses and made our children suffer so that we could cover the legal costs. And finally we had the satisfaction of having won justice for our innocent brother. Now that feeling too is gone,” he argued.
Habibullah, another uncle of the late Jamshed, said Mirza Tahir’s release was a bigger tragedy for the family than his nephew’s murder. “It is like a slow death for members of our family. The President could have ordered 10 of us to be beheaded, and we would have accepted that. But releasing that man convicted for murder is sheer injustice, and it happened because we are poor,” he maintained.
Sohbat Khan complained that the government also tried to pressure his family by sending tribal jirgas and politicians with the plea to forgive Mirza Tahir. He complained that some of the jirgas violated tribal norms. “First, former federal minister Lt Gen (Retd) Majeed Malik sent a message for me to meet him in Chakwal. Normally in our culture, mediators and members of a jirga go to the victim’s home and seek forgiveness. Still, I travelled to Chakwal and met the retired general. However, I didn’t accept his request to forgive Mirza Tahir. Then Chakwal district nazim Sardar Ghulam Abbas approached me through someone and I met him in a neutral place in Rawalpindi. I gave him the same answer,” he recalled.
Subsequently, on April 24 this year, Sohbat Khan said a 30-member jirga from Mohmand Agency in NWFP, led by Malik Sobedar Khan, met him in his Rawalpindi home. “They came without intimation and after sunset, sent by the political agent of Mohmand Agency, a tribal area to which our family originally belongs. This is not the way in which jirgas operate,” he recalled. He said two more jirgas of 24 and 28 tribal elders were sent by the political agent of Mohmand Agency later, on August 2 and August 9, respectively, in the company of tehsildar Naeemullah. Then a three-member jirga, including Ghazi Ahmad and Malik Zafar Khan, came, followed by another one led by PML president for Fata, Malik Zahir Shah Afridi. He said the last one was sent by interior minister Sherpao. “Mr Sherpao should have approached us himself and we would have gone to his place. We would have even forgiven Mirza Tahir if he had constituted a proper jirga in keeping with Pakhtun traditions,” he asserted.
Sohbat Khan also narrated the circumstances in which PML president Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and general secretary Mushahid Hussain Syed met him and his relations at the home of their lawyer, Malik Rab Nawaz Noon, in Rawalpindi. The meeting took place on June 4, 2006. “They told us that they didn’t know Mirza Tahir. However, Chaudhry Shujaat and Mushahid Hussain said they had been sent by their superiors, which could mean the President or the Prime Minister. They told us there were two options. One was forgiving the killer, for Allah’s sake. They didn’t tell us the second option, which we felt was payment of blood-money,” he recalled.
When asked why they didn’t accept blood-money, both Sohbat Khan and Gul Rabi said it would have been dishonourable in view of their strict tribal traditions. Sohbat Khan stated that they had spurned all offers of blood-money and other temptations because Mirza Tahir’s family had initially tried to influence the eyewitnesses. “We are poor, but we have our honour. Mirza Tahir’s family thought they would pay us off and secure his release,” he stated. Gul Rabi said he heard about an Arab philanthropist willing to give his family 50 visas and jobs in the UAE in return for forgiveness for Mirza Tahir. “We weren’t interested in any such offer. All we wanted was justice for my innocent brother Jamshed,” he contended. Sohbat Khan had this to say about the offer of the UAE visas: “I said in an interview that the UAE was hot and not a very comfortable place. I said, ‘Even if we are offered 50 visas for the UK, we won’t agree, even though Britain is a much better place than the UAE.”.
Sohbat Khan recalled that Mirza Tahir had written to him admitting his guilt and seeking forgiveness for murdering Jamshed. “I also met Mirza Tahir in Kot Lakhpat jail when a man named Shafiq hailing from Kamonke approached me. Shafiq had been in the same prison and had been asked by Mirza Tahir to approach me after his release. On that occasion also, Mirza Tahir asked me to forgive him,” he said. He added it was a closed case and his family was relieved that the convicted killer was soon going to meet his fate. “We were mistaken. We as the aggrieved party weren’t even told when he was freed and flown out of Pakistan,” he complained.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.