The most premeditated of murders

According to a research by Justice Project Pakistan and Yale Law School, a condemned prisoner will spend an average of 11.41 years on death row in Pakistan

The most premeditated of murders

The first thing you notice about the death penalty is how much preparation is involved.

If the execution will be by hanging, the length of rope requires close measurement. Too long, and there is a risk of protracted strangulation. Too short, decapitation. In Pakistan, executions must be carried out at 4:30 am from May to August, at 5:30 am from March to October, and at 6:30 am from November to February. When being taken to the scaffold, six warders accompany the prisoner. Two warders must walk in front, two at the back and the prisoner must be flanked by the remaining two. They have to hold the inmate’s arms.

The body remains suspended for 30 minutes after hanging.

If the prisoner is lucky enough to have a family to claim the body, they would have been notified approximately three days before. In a letter littered with administrative jargon, they would have been coldly instructed to bring one charpai and an extra set of clothes for the body, which may be collected from the prison side gate. Some families do not make it in time. Bodies are then buried in the prison graveyard.

On the other hand, for the 8000 or so Pakistanis languishing in prisons worldwide, the execution method can vary.

If 52-year-old Zulfiqar Ali’s sentence had been carried out in Indonesia in July last year, it would have been death by firing squad. A 27-point guide details how he would have been tied to a pole in a sitting, kneeling or standing position. A doctor would have then marked out the location of his heart in black, on his “simple, clean and white” prison-supplied clothes.

12 shooters, nine blanks and three minutes for the spiritual leader to ‘calm’ the prisoner before the trigger is pulled. A sword is literally drawn, brandished and swung to coordinate the firing. According to experts, Ali would have been dead in 20 seconds.

However, if he had survived the hail of bullets, he would have been shot in the temple above his ear immediately.

In a sense, death by capital punishment is the most premeditated murder of all. They prepare for everything.

Make no mistake, the government of Pakistan pays attention to detail when it comes to life on death row (down to the number of bullets guards at the place of execution must have in their rifles and the number of cotton or manila ropes that must be present in the jail at any given point). According to ‘Most Serious Crime’ — Pakistan’s Unlawful Use of the Death Penalty, a research carried out by Justice Project Pakistan and Yale Law School, a condemned prisoner will spend an average of 11.41 years on death row in Pakistan.

Not all is bleak, though; smokers on death row are entitled to five free cigarettes a day at government expense if they are unable to afford their own.

Right before the march to the gallows, death row prisoners are entitled to one more chance at relief. The Pakistan Prison Rules formally require prison authorities to submit a mercy petition on behalf of each prisoner unrepresented by legal counsel. In practice, most mercy petitions contain just three perfunctory lines: ‘The prisoner’s Supreme Court decision has come through. He has been sentenced to death. Please consider his case or mercy.’

While the request is both succinct and accurate, it hardly makes a compelling case for pardon. Whether more detail would make a difference remains to be seen. President Mamnoon Hussain has only ever rejected mercy petitions — when he actually does respond. Mostly, his office just ignores them.

But here’s the unsettling fact about developing a how-to-guide that assists in the lawful killing of people: the death penalty is ugly.

It is unpleasant and difficult to talk about. It is uncomfortable to own; made worse still by the attempt to make it an order of business. It cannot be organized, and it certainly can’t be cleaned up by a rule book. You cannot make it less violent by calling hanging a human being to death ‘Rule Number 362 of the Punjab Prisons Manual.’

Perhaps it is the lack of knowledge of this macabre and deeply disturbing process that makes the death penalty so palatable to the majority of the country. The dearth of empathy that informs our national discourse on the death penalty is matched only by that found in our criminal justice system.

What should shake members of our legal fraternity to its core is that an innocent person may be subjected to this procedure. And in a criminal justice system as structurally and inherently flawed as ours, there must have been scores who marched to the gallows knowing that the truth of their innocence could not and did not save them.

And even one wrongful execution should restore a moratorium on the capital punishment regime, and inspire a detailed review of its implementation.

And with even half the preparation that the state reserves for the actual act of executing a prisoner, the state might be able to stomach the results.


The writer works with Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm based in Lahore