Raising Concerns In Eastern Punjab

 (Asim Rafiqui)

I am traveling in the regions east of Okara and Sahiwal, towards the border with India. I am here to meet with and speak to ex-death row prisoners who have either completed their sentences or were pardoned after some years in incarceration.

The death penalty remains a contentious issue in the country, and despite a near four year moratorium on it, courts and judges continue to sentence prisoners to the gallows. There is a broad consensus that the death penalty should be abolished, but there are those who insist that it remains a crucial element in this Pakistani penal system, and even those who insist that it is a sanctioned and essential Islamic penalty.

I am here, in one of the Punjab’s most important agricultural belt, to find men who have spent time on death row, and who can relate to me their experiences in prison. But perhaps most importantly, who can tell me about the consequences of being sent onto death row for their families, and for their own lives. There are said to be over 8000 prisoners in Pakistan’s death row – a number that places Pakistan at the top of the list of death penalty convictions. What is ironic is that this dubious honour exists in a nation whose police and judicial practices are extremely susceptible to bribery, perjury, and political influence. That is, the system of evidence gathering, court proceedings, and witness testimony are all riddled with the influence of money and power, resulting in many cases being decided on the basis of false witnesses, lack of any direct evidence of a crime, and hearsay. To say nothing about the intentions and prejudices of the lower court justices who seem to have a great love of this act. Pakistan’s Higher Courts repeatedly dismiss death penalty judgements on the grounds of a lack of evidence, but that process can take years, leaving the convicted to suffer the physical and mental tortures of prison life, and their families to loose their properties and assets in the need to fulfill legal fees and other expenses. Even if the accused is acquitted, by the time many come out of jail, their lives, and those of their families are changed forever. And then there are those who have been executed, despite pleading innocence until their last breath.

As I travel across this fertile region, along endless fields of sugar cane, wheat, barley, corn, rice, and cotton, and through dozens of small villages with their mud-brick homes I think of what these places must have looked like a hundred years ago. It is hard to see how they could have been very different. The houses are still made of the mud found on the ground, the doors from the wood of local trees. The children – covered in mud, barefoot and shorn in torn, castaway clothes, still play with sticks and stones in the dirt of the streets, and the sewage still flows through small, brick lined drains.  The livestock and family still share the same living spaces, the men still gather under the tree to smoke hookahs and discuss the day’s work. Only the high-tension electricity poles give away what appears to be a land of timeless poverty and simplicity. And the ubiquitous advertisement posters for mobile telephone services. But not much else seems to have really changed here. These are people who have been left trapped in their backwardness, abandoned from the fast changing world around them. Or so it seems to an outsider traveling into these regions for the first time.

And as an outsider I provoke concern, suspicion and some fear. The sight of an outsider arriving in a small village, and asking to meet with a particular individual raises concerns. People fear authority here, and those who dress in cotton pants and shirts wear the uniform of a city administrator, and that can often mean trouble. There are whispers, and many questions. I have seen fear and caution in the eyes of some. While moving from village to village I have raised concerns. Many have seen me making photographs, and that too has become an issue of concern. My contacts in Lahore have been receiving phone calls from the local people, asking for clarification of my intentions. There is a rumor running around that the Chief Minister of Punjab is trying to locate ex-death row prisoners in order to execute them in police ‘encounters’. That I am the man collecting evidence of this!

Thankfully my contacts have been calming people, and so far – except for a few individuals, I have been able to work quietly. Its a slow process – the travel is long, the people are frequently away once we get to their homes. It is harvesting season and many work in the fields and are away from their houses. Its a slow process, but this remains an important issue. Pakistan remains a nation of retributive punishments for crime. I would so much prefer it move towards a restorative justice model – one more humane, more reflective of the difficult socio-economic lives of the majority of this country.

I am here to understand the consequences of these sentences on the lives of those convicted. They experiences of the men and women I am meeting places a human face to the practice, and reveals the many institutional failures that cripple the lives of innocents. That alone should be reason enough to abolish it. But more on that in the near future.