The family of a man hanged in Pakistan despite claims he was a minor at the time of his crime have hit out at the justice system as human rights activists declared it a “deeply sad day” for a country seeing a surge in the number of executions.
Shafqat Hussain, whose execution had been repeatedly postponed amid international pressure, was hanged on Tuesday morning after Pakistan’s courts remained unconvinced by claims that he was a minor at the time he murdered a boy more than a decade ago.
He was executed at 4.30am local time in the central jail in the southern city of Karachi after four last-minute reprieves in recent months.
Pakistan has seen a spree of executions following the lifting of a death penalty moratorium following the attack in December by Taliban militants on a school in Peshawar that killed more than 130 teenagers.
Last week the European Union expressed its concerns about the “alarming pace” of executions, with more than 190 people hanged since December, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Hussain was sentenced in 2004 by an anti-terrorism court for kidnapping and killing a seven-year-old boy who had gone missing from an apartment building in Karachi, where Hussain worked as a watchman.
The hanging took place despite last-minute attempts to spare him, including a request by the Sindh Human Rights Commission, a statutory body, for a supreme court inquiry into a case that has already been reviewed by the country’s top court.
Abdul Majeed, Hussain’s elder brother, said he and two cousins had rushed to the jail after officials warned them about the likely execution on Tuesday. “Shafqat was already like a dead man by the time we saw him,” he said. “His complexion was yellowish as if he had no blood in his body and he was crying and reciting verses from the Holy Qur’an. He requested us to take care of our old parents.”
He saw Hussain’s body after his execution and said there was a deep cut on his neck, suggesting the hanging had been botched.
Sumaira, Hussain’s sister, said it was impossible to “survive and fight for justice in Pakistan if you are from a poor family”, adding: “We had no money to contest the case or to free him from the cruel police.”
Hussain did benefit from the energies of human rights lawyers who took on his case. Central to their campaign has been the claim that he was just 14 at the time of the alleged crime, and therefore ineligible for execution under Pakistan’s law.
They also argued that Hussain was tortured by police into making a confession.
“Pakistan authorities have never undertaken a proper, judicial investigation into either issue,” the rights group Justice Project Pakistan said after Hussain’s execution. “Instead seizing and refusing to release key evidence such as Shafqat’s school record, which could have provided proof that he was under 18 when he was sentenced to death.”
The police have insisted Hussain was in fact 23 when he was arrested and that his age was never raised during his appeal.
Proving someone’s age can often be fraught with problems in a country were proper records are not always kept. In one court hearing the judges were reduced to an “ocular examination” of old photos of Hussain to try to ascertain his age.
We had no money to contest the case or to free him from the cruel policeShafqat Hussain's sister, Sumaira
Although one birth certificate emerged, the government said it was impossible to prove its authenticity.
Human rights special rapporteurs from the United Nations also became involved last month, complaining that Hussain’s trial “fell short of international standards” for not fully investigating the issue of his age or the allegations of torture.
Despite the vigorous efforts to spare Hussain, lawyers who have reviewed the case have remained unconvinced.
“There is no evidence that he was under age,” said Chaudhry Faisal Hussain, a prominent lawyer. He pointed out that the plea for an investigation into Hussain’s age was dismissed by Islamabad high court judge Athar Minallah, one of the country’s most respected human rights lawyers.
“This case has been needlessly lingered by civil society who want to create a parallel judicial system by creating media trials. Unfortunately people tend to believe what the media says.”
Despite international criticism of the number of executions, the government has remained firm as the death penalty is popular among the public, who widely regard it as an effective deterrent against crime and terrorism. Even a recent threat from the European Union to reconsider an important trade pact in light of the executions has not deterred the government.
“This is another deeply sad day for Pakistan,” said David Griffiths, from the rights group Amnesty International. “A man whose age remains disputed and whose conviction was built around torture has now paid with his life – and for a crime for which the death penalty cannot be imposed under international law.”