The wretched march to the gallows

In many ways Abdul Basit’s story is a tale of Pakistan’s appalling desertion of its prison population. Once a person is pushed through the indomitable prison gates, he enters a black hole in the state’s consciousness – denied all rights and dignity and left at the complete mercy of prison guards who are accorded unfettered powers to crush any signs of dissent and maintain order. The reality becomes particularly stark when one looks at the flaws inherent in Pakistan’s criminal justice system. Infested with corruption and incompetence, Pakistan’s police rely on torture and intimidation to procure damning confessions from the poor, mentally ill and socially marginalised to finish off their caseloads. Those who enter the dark abyss of our prisons are guilty mainly of being born on the wrong side of DHA, Gulberg and Cantt. The state is apathetic to the violations of their human dignity, as in its eyes, they always had less of it to begin with.

Abdul Basit was convicted for murdering a man during a heated altercation in 2009. True to standard police practice, the case against him was devoid of any proper investigation and comprised primarily of multiple accounts constructed by collaboration between the police and the relatives of the deceased. Abdul Basit maintained his innocence throughout the trial however he was awarded the death sentence and his subsequent appeals to the High Court and Supreme Court were rejected.

In 2010, while Abdul Basit was kept at Faisalabad jail, he began complaining of severe headache and an extremely high temperature. His family narrate that his headache became so severe that he would scream and bang his head against the wall for any form of relief. His anguish was only met with apathy by jail authorities despite repeated pleas from his family. It was discovered later that based on his symptoms Abdul Basit had contracted Tuberculosis (TB) meningitis in prison. Despite the knowledge that TB, if left untreated, could result in permanent damage, the jail authorities denied him any access to the requisite healthcare and simply confined him to a solitary cell to prevent an outbreak. It was only after Abdul Basit succumbed to a month of indelible pain and lost consciousness that he was transferred to DHQ hospital in Faisalabad.

At the DHQ, it was discovered that his condition had deteriorated so critically that he fell into a coma for 3 weeks. Eventually his family was informed that as a result of neglect and a lack of timely treatment he had contracted Tuberculosis (TB) meningitis. Over the course of thirteen months his condition plummeted – he became paralysed from the waist down and would suffer from long-term consequences of spinal cord atrophy for the rest of his living existence. Abdul Basit will never walk again. He has lost all control of his basic bodily functions. Various medical officers have classified his chances of recovery as ‘minimal’. In 2011, a Medical Board at Services Hospital Lahore deemed that management of his medical condition “would be very difficult in jail”.

However, Abdul Basit remains in prison. His days are spent confined to a cot in solitary confinement- no access to people or life outside the four walls of his death row cell. He is dependent on jail staff for his most basic hygiene, such as going to the toilet. He has even been denied access to a wheel chair with the result that he suffers from bedsores. He leads an undignified, inhumane and unhygienic life – failed by the government, prison system and the criminal justice system.

Furthermore, despite his permanent and life changing disability and humiliating imprisonment, Abdul Basit faces execution on Wednesday, 29 July. Under Rule 107 (iv) of the Prison Rules (1978) ill health is a ground for clemency from execution. However, the President of Pakistan in January 2013 rejected a petition from Abdul Basit’s family requesting to commutation of his death sentence to life imprisonment on the basis of his disability.

Abdul Basit’s case is surely unique due to his permanent disability. However, in many ways, it is the face of the state’s executions since the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty in December 2014- cruel, vengeful and futile in its self-proclaimed quest to eradicate terrorism. Abdul Basit is not a terrorist nor does he pose a violent threat to society. He has already forsaken his dignity, freedom and liberty to the flaws of our inequitable justice system. Abdul Basit deserves compensation from the state for being subjected to the lack of care and discriminatory treatment during his time in prison rather than being pushed off to the gallows without any compassion and consideration of his permanent disability. However, the state is gearing up to take his life on Wednesday – another faceless number in the conveyer belt of civilian executions that will supposedly bring us closer to peace and stability.

The writer is a lawyer currently working with the Justice Project Pakistan

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