Pakistan News

Children in the noose

Children in the noose

On Tuesday this past week, the execution of Shafqat Hussain was halted again. This was the second time it happened.

According to reports, in March, Shafqat Hussain had once before been readied for death, dressed in the white clothes that those about to be executed are supposed to wear and write out his last will. The first stay came at the last minute.

The Federal Investigation Agency would look into the disputed issue in the case: Shafqat’s age at the time the crime was committed. Shafqat and his counsel have consistently held that he was 14 at the time of the offense and that he is hence ineligible for the death penalty.

Also read: Would we hang a 14-year-old 'terrorist'?

In granting this last stay, the judge noted that the Federal Investigation Agency was the wrong institution for carrying out the investigation into Shafqat’s age. He ordered that a judicial agency should be asked to conduct the investigation instead so that it would truly be the “independent inquiry” that Shafqat’s attorneys had asked for in the case.

Shafqat is accused of having kidnapped and then having killed a seven-year-old boy from an apartment building in 2001. He has been tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Appeals to mercy are difficult ones to make in Pakistan’s current gallows-happy period. Since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted (in December, the day after the attack on schoolchildren at Army Public School), many in Pakistan have embraced the belief that a lot of executions will rid the country of terrorism.

From then until this April; less than four months, over 100 executions have been carried out. According to Amnesty International, the country is fast gaining the reputation of the leading executioner in the world.

Also read: Shafqat Hussain’s case

In a prescient irony, around the same time as Shafqat was held back from the gallows, another former child prisoner was finally freed on bail in faraway Canada. Omar Khadr, a Canadian Muslim, was captured by US forces after a firefight in 2002.

He was 15 years old and severely injured. For the next eight years, Khadr was held at Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp where he was tortured and interrogated for information on Al-Qaeda. In 2010, Khadr plead guilty to conspiring with Al-Qaeda to commit terrorist acts making roadside bombs to target US troops in Afghanistan spying on American military convoys and providing material support for terrorism.

Omar Khadr thus became the first person to be tried before a war crimes tribunal and a military commission for a crime committed when he was a juvenile.

Interviews with other prisoners who were incarcerated with Khadr revealed that he was treated worse than other prisoners; severely injured when he arrived at Bagram; he was also denied medication. In their appeal, Omar’s lawyers argued that the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol, an international treaty prohibited the conviction of a child by a war crimes tribunal. He was finally transferred from Guantanamo Bay to a Canadian prison after serving nearly 12 and-a-half years.

On May 7, 2015 a judge in a Canadian court decided that until adjudication of the charges (which hold that somehow he, a severely injured teenager, had thrown a grenade at a US soldier) should be freed on bail.

Canadian politicians, for whom Khadr has served as a poster child of the lurking evils of terror, are livid.

“Omar Ahmed Khadr is a convicted murderer," railed Conservative Ryal Leef, adding that "streets”. Khadr does not face execution even if he is found guilty.

It seems that Khadr, despite his many misfortunes is luckier than Shafqat Hussain. Even with the weight of Canadian public opinion hanging heavy on the eventual outcome of his trial in Canada (he was the last citizen of a NATO country to be sent back to his country of nationality), it seems that there is room for some possible fairness.

Shafqat Hussain, on the other hand, seems doomed to never getting the independent investigation that his counsel have repeatedly asked for and which is required for a fair determination to his case. Before he issued the latest stay order, presiding Judge Minallah rightly remarked that haste in executing Shafqat Hussain would result if it was later found that he was executed and it was found that he was underage.

In the meantime, Minister of the Interior, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan said in a speech on the floor of the National Assembly that “an inquiry was underway” to determine Shafqat’s actual age.

Read through: Tale of two non-hangings

I have written about Shafqat’s case before. Each time, a barrage of questions comes my way insisting on his guilt and on the necessity of punishment.

It is useful therefore, to end this appeal with noting that an argument against Shafqat’s execution is not the same as an argument for his innocence. When a man – in this case a likely child at the time of his crime – is put to death, there is no possibility of undoing the act. Since the state carries out the act; the culpability falls in its own lap.

The Pakistani state, with its morass of parallel jurisdictions, weight of stalled cases and generally groaning wheels of justice is already beset with the burdens of too many mistakes. The imperative then is to recognise that with this much doubt and uncertainty regarding the age of a man to be put to death; the just solution may be to search for an alternative punishment, instead of one that can never be undone.

If Pakistanis mourn and mutter at the injustice of Guantanamo, the mistreatment of men like Omar Khadr, so must they think critically, skeptically of their own pronouncements of guilt.

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