When former police officer Khizar Hayat was imprisoned in 2003 on charges of murder, his widowed mother Iqbal Bano was promised by state-appointed lawyers that her son would soon return home. Certain about Hayat’s innocence, Bano sold her jewelry and family property to save her son, only to receive a call one evening in June 2015 that her son was to be executed the next day.
While a human rights law firm was able to get a stay on Hayat’s execution due to his deteriorating mental illness, he is one of the thousands of prisoners in Pakistani jails currently awaiting execution. With 8,200 prisoners, Pakistan has the highest number of inmates on death row in the world, including many who weren’t given a fair trial or were convicted of crimes they didn’t commit.
Hayat’s case was fought by a public defender, since his family could not afford private legal service. According to Bano, Hayat’s lawyer lacked competency and failed to make a good case for him.
“Not getting a proper trial is something very common in Pakistan,” says Zainab Mahboob, lawyer at Justice Project Pakistan, a pro bono law firm that worked to stay Hayat’s execution. “State-appointed lawyers often take the fee and do not appear on hearings.”
According to Mahboob, most of the prisoners in jails come from poor backgrounds and cannot afford the expense of a strong defense.
“Even if a crime is committed by a rich man, he never gets stuck in jail. He gets out. Don’t know why and how, but he does,” Mahboob added.
In December 2014, following the Peshawar school massacre, the government removed the seven-year old moratorium on the death penalty. However, the impact on curbing terrorism remains controversial.
According to the findings of Justice Project Pakistan, more than three-fourths of the death-row prisoners tried under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Courts have no link to a “reasonable definition of terrorism.” These courts were established in 1997 by the Anti-Terrorism Act, which carries a series of provisions that fall under “terrorism,” including “doing of anything that causes death,” “damaging property by ransacking or looting” and “burning of vehicles or any other serious form of arson.”
The broad definition of terrorism has resulted in an aggravated use of death sentences and life imprisonment, resulting in overcrowded jails. Central Jail Lahore, where Hayat is imprisoned, is jammed with 166 percent more inmates than its capacity.
“We don’t treat animals like they treat prisoners. They have iron-caged cells about eight by ten feet, designed for two or three prisoners, but holding eight or nine,” said Sohail Yafat, a former prisoner who suffered police brutality.
“They subjected me to third degree torture without any intimation or explanation, which resulted in the swelling of my testicles, blood in my urine and the swelling of my feet just like loaves of bread,” said Yafat.
Yafat was arrested as a suspect in a murder case and ended up serving in jail for 10 years, before being released.
“When a young student is treated like a hard core criminal, its effect never leaves you,” Yafat added. “It was a nightmare for me. Even today, [though] I have escaped with great difficulty from the trauma—I have not been able to fully recover."
Hayat has also been in jail for more than a decade, and police torture has worsened his mental health. In 2008, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and is being medicated by jail authorities. Over the years, he has started getting hallucinations, talks to himself and no longer understands his circumstances.
“When I visit him, he asks me to take him home, not realizing he is on death-row,” said Bano with watery eyes. “He doesn’t even recognize his wife and children now.”
While Bano doubts her son would return home, she is advocating for Hayat to be transferred to a separate mental health facility. His execution remains imminent.