Waiting to die: Life on death row
SHEHZAD Shafi, a teacher by profession, 30 or 35 years of age which he no longer remembers, and the only brother to two sisters, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death when he was 20 years old.
He is currently in the maximum-security facility in Karachi Central Prison awaiting the decision of the High Court regarding his execution or, as he hopes, exoneration.
Shafi is just one of the 125 prisoners currently on death row in Karachi Central Prison. These prisoners have on an average spent a decade awaiting execution or decisions against their appeals overturning their death sentences.
Death row. These words evoke a correspondingly foreboding imagery: adjoining cells protected by bars of cold steel inhabited by supposedly sinister offenders.
Rightly so, there is a need to dehumanize condemned prisoners– reduce them to monsters perhaps – to justify hanging them to death.
My first interaction with condemned prisoners was in March 2022 when I, as a part of a research study being conducted by the Committee for the Welfare of Prisoners – Legal Aid Office, visited the Central Prison in Hyderabad where another 165 prisoners currently remain on the death row.
In Hyderabad’s Prison, the only people allowed to enter and leave through the heavy metal doors of the maximum-security adult prison are police officials whose job it is to ensure that these individuals remain locked up as a service to the state and the citizenry.
My role, as the only woman present, was quite simple: to listen to, and have a conversation with these individuals sentenced to death.
Although 27 offences in Pakistan are legally punishable by death, of the 23 individuals we spoke to, 22 had been convicted for murder whereas one individual had been convicted in a drug case. 52% of these individuals fell within the age group of 19 – 25 years at the time the crime was committed.
A majority had been educated up to class 5 or even less and were earning between 10,000 to 15,000 rupees a month at the time of their arrest.
When an individual is sentenced to death, they have a right to appeal the sentence in a higher court.
All individuals that we spoke to had had their appeals pending in either the High Court or Supreme Court.
These appeals have been pending for a minimum of months up to five years and above. But this simply scratches the surface of this prison stratum.
To upset the apple cart, the study that I am engaged in explores the underlying narratives and experiences of those on death row and the capital punishment landscape in Sindh.
Saleem tells us about the slow process of hearings for his appeal. He had first appealed the verdict before the High Court.
It took nine years for High Court to reach a conclusion – his sentence was maintained. He then filed an appeal in the Supreme Court which has been pending for the last 5 years.
For 14 years of his life, he has been clinging on to the hope that one of these appeals would revert this decision and take him off death row, if not exonerate him.
He began telling us how he had come to the prison at the prime of his youth but with each passing day as he waits for his death, his health has deteriorated.
At 25, when he first came to Central Prison Karachi, he was a young ambitious man: working as an electrician at one of the leading pharmaceutical companies.
He worked out religiously to stay in shape. However, after he was sentenced, his health deteriorated rapidly and he developed blood pressure in his early 30s.
Upon further inquiry, he said, ‘Meri zindagi wese hi khatam ho chuki hai.
Kia farq parta hai mei ajj marun ya kal?’ (My life is already over. What does it matter if I die today or tomorrow?’).
Saleem’s father had passed away two years after his imprisonment – which he blames himself for.
It is rather easy to debate about the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to crime; however, a conversation with someone who lives through the reality of being on death row, waiting to die, compels you to question the landscape against which they are sentenced.
If these individuals were to be re-integrated into the society, what is the possibility of them committing the same crime again?
Is the deterioration of their physical and mental health as a result of their sentence not a dual punishment of sorts?
If I had a strategy at the beginning of each conversation it was to ask the person, ‘How are you? ’ and listen for the answer.
Their answers revealed certain sadness, anger, remorse and fear. No scientific evidence, so far, suggests that death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime compared to other punishments.
However, it has been proven that it is the certainty of being caught and punished that serves as a deterrent and prevents crime.
Major outcry for capital punishment in Pakistan comes as an impulse reaction to horrendous crimes, however, against the backdrop of evidence available, as a society we need to reflect on what constitutes justice at a deeper level.
Capital punishment is, after all, contrary to the right to life. Perhaps, it’s time for Pakistan to join the 108 countries that have completely abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
—The writer is working as a Research Associate at the Committee for the Welfare of Prisoner – Legal Aid Office.