Pakistani prisoners in Saudi Arabia

Earlier this month, headlines were made when self-styled, swivel-eyed holy warrior Zaid Hamid resurfaced in Pakistan after spending several weeks in a Saudi jail. While the facts of his case are still unclear, it was alleged that Hamid had been arrested for publicly criticising the Saudi regime. News of Hamid’s incarceration sent his followers on social media into a frenzy, with many of them demanding that the government take immediate action to bring the object of their adulation back to Pakistan. These appeals for action took on greater urgency when speculation began to mount about the sentence Hamid was likely to face; the prospect of dozens of lashes followed by years of imprisonment prompted some of Hamid’s supporters to decry the inefficiency, brutality, and arbitrary cruelty of the Saudi justice system, with the outcry prompting a response from the government. Despite the Saudis denying consular access to Hamid, it was reported that the government of Pakistan nonetheless persisted in its efforts to have him released.

The circumstances of Zaid Hamid’s release remains shrouded in mystery. For his own part, Hamid has little to say about his experiences in Saudi Arabia beyond, predictably enough, attributing his imprisonment to a far-reaching conspiracy hatched by India to prevent him from realising his dream of conquering that country. The lunacy such statements is self-evident, but it is interesting to see how Hamid’s explanation for his detention in Saudi Arabia, as well as his experiences there, are indicative of a wider problem that garners regrettably little attention in Pakistan.

By attributing his travails to India, Hamid accomplished the remarkable feat of both explaining and decrying his imprisonment without directly criticising those who were responsible for it, namely the government of Saudi Arabia itself. While it might have been too much to expect Zaid Hamid to suddenly become a champion of free speech, given his longstanding efforts to silence ‘liberal fascists’ (an oxymoron used to describe everyone who disagrees with him) in Pakistan, the inability to mouth a single word of criticism against the Saudi regime is simply the latest example of a well-established Pakistani tradition. Indeed, at around about the same time that Zaid Hamid was released, politicians belonging to the government and its coalition partners were tripping over themselves to stifle criticism of the Saudis in the local press following the Mina tragedy. The maintenance of ‘fraternal’ relations with a fellow Muslim country that just happens to possess massive oil reserves is of apparently much greater importance than asking questions about the circumstances under which dozens of Pakistani citizens were killed.

In this context, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the complete and utter indifference shown by the government towards the plight of thousands of Pakistanis imprisoned in Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf countries), many of whom are on death row for their alleged involvement in drug smuggling. Seventeen Pakistanis have been executed in Saudi Arabia this year, and the killing is unlikely to be stemmed in the near future.

At the outset, it is important to clarify that the fate of Pakistani prisoners in Saudi Arabia must be considered in the context of a legal system that organisations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have repeatedly criticised for its serious shortcomings; the absence of a penal code, a total disregard for due process, ill-defined thresholds for the evidence required to ‘convict’ those accused of crimes, lack of access to lawyers, and the frequent use of torture to solicit ‘confessions’, all reflect the arbitrary and capricious nature of the Saudi ‘justice’ system. The problem is compounded when considering how many of the Pakistanis imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, often travelling there to engage in manual labour, come from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds, lacking both the education and resources through which to engage with the Saudi legal system, as well as the legal and consular help that might aid in overcoming some of these constraints.

To convict people on the basis of a process that could be called dysfunctional at best is bad enough. To go ahead and use these questionable convictions to deprive people of their lives, often through public executions involving beheading, is even worse. When ISIS does this, people around the world are rightly repulsed by the barbarity of their actions but for some reason, Saudi efforts in this regard barely evoke even a whisper of condemnation.

As has been argued before in this space, particularly in the wake of the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan, even if serious moral and procedural objections to capital punishment were to be put aside, the fact remains that it simply does not work.

Defenders of the practice, including the Saudi Interior Ministry, argue that the death penalty acts as a deterrent against crime. Statistically, as research from around the world has repeatedly shown, this is simply not true. However, as the case of alleged Pakistani drug smugglers in Saudi Arabia shows, the entire approach is misguided because it also fails to even correctly identify and deal with the root of the problem. Many of the young men arrested on drug-related charges in Saudi Arabia are little more than unwitting or unwilling mules, either duped into carrying contraband or forced to do so by unscrupulous gangs and traffickers. Condemning these men to death, particularly on the basis of problematic legal proceedings, does little to deter or even impede the activities of the criminal elements directing the drug trade in both Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. As always, it is the poor and marginalised who pay for the sins of the rich and powerful.

Earlier this month, relatives of people incarcerated in Saudi Arabia staged a demonstration in Lahore demanding that the government do something to bring their loved ones, or at least their bodies, back to Pakistan. At the very least, it was asked that the government do what it can to provide these prisoners with legal and consular help. The Justice Project of Pakistan has also lodged a petition to this effect in the Lahore High Court, with the hope being that this could compel the government to take action in support of citizens who have essentially been abandoned abroad. Unlike Zaid Hamid, whose celebrity drew attention to his case, the vast majority of Pakistani prisoners in Saudi Arabia remain unseen and unheard and for some of them, time is rapidly running out.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS

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