After a five-year moratorium, Pakistan’s government reinstated the death penalty in June, meaning more than 8,000 prisoners on death row now face execution. Human rights groups have condemned the move but the government argues it is the only way to deal with a surge in terrorist attacks. FRANCE 24's team in Lahore met with one executioner set to return to work.
For five years, Pakistan’s gallows lay dormant. In 2008, the government, then under the leadership of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), introduced a moratorium on the death penalty in a move lauded by international rights groups.
But on June 30th this year that moratorium came to an end and, much to the dismay of those same rights groups, the new government of Pakistan Muslim League-N (PMLN) leader Nawaz Sharif announced the death penalty would be brought back.
According to figures from Amnesty International, Pakistan has more than 8,000 prisoners on death row, who could now be facing execution. After five years of inactivity, Pakistan’s hangmen are returning to work.
Sabir Masih is one of those hangmen. He works at Lahore’s central jail and is one of just two executioners covering the whole of Pakistan’s largest province, Punjab.
‘I don’t think about anything when I pull the lever’
Since he is not allowed to meet the press at his work place, FRANCE 24 met with Sabir in a public park in downtown Lahore.
“The place where we hang prisoners looks a bit like this, it’s open air and the gallows are about the same size as those posts,” he says, gesturing to a nearby electricity pylon.
With the death penalty now back in force and executions due to begin again at the end of August, Sabir is anticipating a heavy workload.
“I’m going to be busy every day,” he says. Sabir estimates he will execute three to four prisoners in a typical workday. “The maximum I have hanged is six people in one day,” he adds.
His job may seem gruesome to many but Sabir, with over two hundred executions behind him in a career spanning over a decade, is able to remain dispassionate about his work.
“It’s just work,” he says coldly. “I don’t think about anything when I pull the lever.”
Sabir says he has nothing against those he executes, whatever their crimes.
“When a prisoner comes to the gallows I tie his legs together and put the noose around his neck,” he explains.
“Then I put a hood on him and say if you have any last prayers, you shouldn’t say them aloud but in your heart.”
Meanwhile, lawyer Sarah Belal is among those in Pakistan who see the reintroduction of the death penalty as a step backward for the country’s legal system. She fears the return of hanging will lead to a “bloodbath” in Pakistan’s jails, due to the large number of crimes that now warrant the death penalty and the inefficiency of the country’s legal system.
When Pakistan won its independence in 1947, there were just two crimes that merited the death penalty, she says, but this number has skyrocketed in recent decades so that prisoners can now be executed for around 27 different offences.
“Some of them are as benign as cyber crimes and blasphemy, so you see the death penalty being imposed in incredibly high numbers,” says Sarah.
‘I can’t explain how emotionally drained we all feel’
One of her pro bono clients is Zulfiqar, who was placed on death row following his arrest in 1998 for a double murder.
“There was gross negligence in parts by the state appointed attorney to present Zulfiqar’s version of self defence before the court, and so the court sentenced him to death,” says Sarah.
For Zulfiqar, the fluctuating death penalty policies of the country’s changing governments has been an additional source of mental anguish as he waits to discover his fate.
“It is an eight by ten feet room with seven to ten prisoners in it. I’ve received 22 death warrants and three or four times the suspensions only arrived within the last 24 hours,” he says.
“The last time the government announced they wouldn’t be hanging anyone for five years, but all of us on death row were under constant mental pressure because we didn’t know whether that would last. And now, with the government changing, I can’t explain how emotionally drained we all feel.”
The hopes of Zulfiqar and thousands of others on Pakistan’s death row now rest with another change of heart by the government. But with authorities planning on carrying out more than four hundred executions before the end of the year, the time left for the government to show mercy is quickly running out.