By Sonya Rehman
In a country where 491 executions have taken place since December 2014, when the death penalty moratorium was lifted in response to the Army Public School terrorist attack in Peshawar, one organization, the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) offers hope for the country’s 8,200 prisoners on death row.
Sarah Belal, a 39-year-old human rights lawyer, founded JPP in 2009 in the belief that Pakistan should not be the world’s “fifth most prolific executioner,” following China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. As executive director, she leads a small team providing free legal assistance to underprivileged prisoners battling mental illness, victims of police brutality or the war on terror, and Pakistani migrant workers incarcerated overseas.
On a Friday afternoon during prayer break, Belal, the recipient of the inaugural Franco-German Prize for Human Rights and the Rule of Law in 2016, greets me at the JPP’s headquarters in a picturesque neighborhood in Lahore. Dressed in a sleeveless summer blouse and pants, she has a pixie haircut that complements her petite frame. Born to a family steeped in business and academics, she is the first lawyer on either side.
Belal studied law at Oxford University but didn’t branch out into human rights work until she was redirected by a postgraduate course in 2007. “[I knew] death penalty work was never going to be happy work,” she says plainly. “I think you have to have something that connects you to the cause, otherwise you can’t really do it — why would you?”
For her, that connection was Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan, an employee of the Pakistan Navy convicted in 1998 for killing two men — allegedly in self-defense. After reading an urgent letter of appeal from Khan in a local English newspaper in 2009, Belal worked the channels until she was put in touch with Khan’s brother. But the young lawyer had just graduated and the case was exceedingly complex; Belal’s mentors, criminal law experts, gave the prisoner slim odds of being released. Khan was executed in 2015.
“It was horrific,” Belal says. “The reasons why people dedicate their lives to this field are as varied as the people in this line of work. I’m still trying to figure out what mine is. Perhaps it’s a basic fear of death … To me, imagining somebody knowing the time they’re going to die and being physically incapable of stopping it is just the worst thing you can ever do to a human being.”
In addition to representing the poorest Pakistani prisoners at home and abroad, JPP developed a mental health manual for the local law community, advocates against the death penalty and for freedom of information, and organizes workshops for judges and lawyers. Drawing on their own expertise and bringing in forensic psychiatrists and jurists from the U.S., they’ve already trained10 Lahore High Court judges and 200 district judges within Punjab (where 83 percent of executions occur). The next goal, Belal says, is to raise funds to reach the remaining districts in the province and begin training prison officials.
“Under our laws, mentally ill persons cannot be tried,” she explains. But without collaboration between mental health experts and legal practitioners, Pakistan’s lawyers and judges routinely overlook or misdiagnose mentally ill defendants, making it difficult for them to get a fair trial. “The fact that we have mentally ill and intellectually disabled persons on death row in Pakistan is because the stakeholders involved have very little understanding of mental illness.”
Understanding is key, but Zainab Mahboob, who has worked with the JPP since 2014, says the greater obstacle is a failure of will to improve the system. “No one is willing to change anything in Pakistan,” she says. “Our work entails meeting a lot of government officials, and most of them … are not ready to take any responsibility.” What’s more, Mahboob says, there’s an absence of compassion. “When we visit local hospitals or the home department, the reaction always is: ‘Oh, so you’re here to save the killers.’”
To be fair, most of JPP’s clients and other prisoners sentenced to die have been convicted of very serious crimes and the victims’ families are entitled to seek justice. Take, for instance, the horrific rape and murder of a 7-year-old girl this past January. The man accused, Imran Ali — now on death row — was linked to at least eight similar cases involving minors. For such hardened criminals who exhibit a complete disregard for human life, many argue that capital punishment is the only solution.
“For desperate and dangerous criminals who show no mercy or remorse, a harsher view is adopted,” says Salman Safdar, a Lahore-based criminal lawyer who has handled roughly 1,500 death-penalty cases. “Wrongful convictions are very common in this part of the world, but despite all the controversies and shortcomings in the system, the death sentence is rightly kept and not abolished as there are a significant number of cases almost every month where extreme penalty is the appropriate solution.”
But the death penalty debate offers no easy answers — or room for middle ground. Asad Jamal, a lawyer based in Lahore, is staunchly opposed, calling it cruel, degrading and irreversible. “The idea of rehabilitation is simply excluded when you support capital punishment,” he says. He also points to the high margin for error in police investigations: “You can never be sure that the investigation leading to holding the accused guilty can be absolutely reliable.”
Perhaps this is why Belal seeks to educate the public through grass-roots efforts such as Intezaar (The Wait), a theater production based on real-life death penalty cases, and #BringItBack, a social media campaign highlighting the system’s potential abuses and calling on the government to restore the moratorium.
“If you present the death penalty debate to the public in binary terms, it’s very easy for them to say that the death penalty should be supported,” says Rimmel Mohydin, a former journalist who heads the JPP’s communications department. “What we try to do through our projects is to … break it down. We say: would you support the hanging of someone who was 16-years-old when he committed a crime? And you’ll find that people are suddenly thinking about it.”
Still, Belal knows she’s fighting an uphill battle — 78 percent of Pakistanis favor capital punishment. And the struggle is both political and personal. “When I joined the profession, I was discriminated against more because of my socio-economic background and also because I’m a woman,” she says. There is a need, she says, to bring more foreign-educated lawyers into Pakistan’s legal system — along with greater female representation. “We need more women in the bar and the bench, in positions of power,” Belal says. “I think it’s absolutely atrocious that we haven’t had a single female judge of the Supreme Court in the history of this country.”
But Belal prefers to look ahead. Her goal is to build an institution that survives “the cult of personality” that dominates human rights work in Pakistan. “It should not be all about me,” she says, before hurriedly packing up her laptop now that the time for prayers has ended.