October 22, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong

There will be little sleep tonight for the inmates of Adiala jail’s death cells, but though the rooms in Pakistan’s notorious northern prison are concrete, cold and small –they measure about eight by five feet – discomfort is currently a side issue. This is because for the first time in years the men and women on Pakistan’s death rows have been given some hope about their futures.

On 25 August a letter reached a Pakistan news agency from the prisoners at Adiala. It warmly congratulated the new President on his appointment and it carried the reminder of a promise. “You had spoken on the floor of National Assembly that our government wants to commute death sentences,” they wrote to President Zardari, and to Prime Minister Gilani. “We are now alive since then … Please, once again look in to our matter.”

The reminder was badly needed. On June 21 Yusuf Gilani announced that, in tribute to its assassinated leader, Benazir Bhutto, the new ruling party would like to commute the country’s 7,000 or so death sentences into life imprisonment. But four months on, says the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), four people have already been hung. “We are being crushed by the system like a turnip,” wrote the prisoners. “There are so many innocent people in the jails of Pakistan… [but] no stay orders have been granted to those who are being hanged in the near future.”

For Pakistan’s reformers, who had seen this as a step towards abolition, Zardari’s promise has started to look empty, but the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) insists that it was for real. On October 15 a law minister announced that a summary had been sent by the cabinet to the President’s office, where it now awaits his signature. Pakistan annually executes the most people in the world after China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and is one of just five countries that will still hang juveniles. The coming weeks, say insiders, could be crucial to more than just 7,000 lives.

This isn’t the first time the death penalty has been fought in Pakistan. In the seventies Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto turned all death sentences to life imprisonment, before being hung himself in a coup, and fifteen years later his daughter Benazir kept all but a handful of those sentenced from the gallows while she was Prime Minister. This year the federal cabinet again made steps to commute death sentences, but caved under political and religious pressure from the right wing.

The Bhuttos, like many who have supported reform in Pakistan, believed that until a country can offer a fair trial, it should not risk having a death penalty. “There is corruption and disorganization all through the police and the judiciary in Pakistan,” says the AHRC’s Baseer Naveed. “The rich and powerful can buy themselves out of trouble, and custodial torture is run of the mill. I think that many innocent people are hung.”  Supporters of the penalty point to the country’s relatively high violent crime rate and say that death is the only practical deterrent.

When the Pakistan republic was first formed in 1947 only two crimes could be met with a death sentence – murder and treason; there are now more than twenty. The list runs from drug offences and rape to the more ambiguous, like extra-marital sex and blasphemy. The only possible sentence for blaspheming is execution, and the law keeps Pakistan’s death cells  well stocked, largely with minority peoples such as Christians, Hindus and Ahmadi sect members, many of them at the losing end of a personal vendetta or property dispute.

Zardari’s camp has suggested that an announcement on the 7,000, and even on abolition, could come at any time. “I’m sure they will do it,” says Nasir Aslan Zahid, former Chief Justice of the Sindh High Court. “This time they have got a chance. It has been 12 years since Benazir Bhutto’s government and this time they have control with the presidency, so they can easily implement her decision.”

Others look to the country’s many conservative MPs, its powerful mullahs and the lack of action so far and conclude that Zardari doesn’t have the resolve. “It was an exuberance. They don’t have the political will,” says lawyer Muneer Malik, who spent time in Adiala’s death cells himself last year after he ran protests for an independent judiciary. “It was just pandering to a particular lobby, putting up a liberal face before the European Union, which there’s pressure from. Otherwise the bill would already be in parliament.” And for the condemned inmates? “Right now their chances look pretty bleak,” Malik concludes.

Earlier this year the AHRC reported on the case of Zulfiqar Ali, a man on Adiala’s death row who had been convicted of murder but was not able to afford a lawyer; he had tried to construct his own defense even though he can’t speak English. His brother, Abdul Qayum, remembers his family’s reactions when they heard of Zardari’s announcement. “I was jumping on my feet, not on the earth or in the sky,” he remembers. “Where I was, I don’t know! His daughters were also jumping around in the street. When I told Zulfiqar he couldn’t speak for minutes”.

Nevertheless on 2nd October Qayum was summoned to a guard’s house in Lahore and showed the black warrant. “I felt like I was going deep into the earth, I couldn’t talk or say anything,” he says. “Then I collected my senses and I went to tell the rest of the family.”

Thanks to last ditch campaigning Ali got a last minute stay of 15 days. Under Islamic sharia law a murderer can be pardoned by a victim’s relatives, usually after a blood money payment called diyat, and the courts will often urge family members to resolve matters on the side; it’s what human rights NGOs call the ‘privatisation of justice’ and tends to give the wealthy a certain criminal freedom.  However worse, say such groups, is that many death penalties are given because judges assume a settlement will be found. Ali’s family are poor and he has been in prison for ten years. If diyat can’t be arranged this time around, his execution will take place this week.

The world will be watching Pakistan’s new president over the coming month. Politicians make many promises around election time which, as everyone knows, may not be kept. But the promise of life to 7,000 – some criminals, some not – would be a cruel and unusual ploy. “Our eyes are towards you,” wrote the prisoners in August. “Please accomplish your objectives as soon as possible, because time is short and we are on the Verge of Death.”