July 12, 2020
By Ahmed Saeed & Xari Jalil
LAHORE: On the evening of June 30, forty-year-old Muhammad Iqbal stepped out of the Mandi Bahauddin jail a free man – the first time after 22 years. It was not an easy walk out of the gate; he had waited, struggled, and even given up during this time, never believing that he would be able to come out into the real world again. But his day had come.
During all these years, Iqbal’s fate hung in balance, as he was left uncertain if he could ever leave the jail premises alive.
In 1999, Iqbal was handed a death sentence by an Anti-Terrorist Court (ATC) for murdering a man and injuring three others. There were also four other accomplices on the charge sheet.
But to date, Iqbal denies his involvement in the crime.
Yet out of the five accused, only Iqbal was given a death-sentenced while the others were sentenced for life.
At the time of the registration of FIR, Iqbal was only 17 years old. This was verified by the trial court through an ossification test. But he was made to confess a crime he was never part of, being brutally tortured by the area police.
“They (police officials) took me to a private place some miles away from the police station,” he said, recalling the events that led to his arrest. “They tied me to a bed and resorted to third-degree torture. They made me suffer in every possible way. In the end, they threatened me that if I would not give a confessional statement then they would add my father’s name in the FIR too. It was then that I confessed. But the reality was something else.”
Iqbal said he had not even been initially nominated in the FIR – his name was added after three months of the case registration.
“In villages, everyone recognizes each other, but in my case, first they lodged an FIR against unknown people and named me as the principal accused after three months. If I had been at the crime scene, why did they not immediately recognize me?” he questions.
Iqbal was hopeful that he would be released by the trial court owing to his age and lapses in the investigation. But since the case was registered under the Anti-Terrorist Act (ATA), the ATC Gujranwala sentenced him to death and refused to give him the benefit of being minor.
After that Iqbal was shifted to a death cell in Gujranwala jail. According to Iqbal, the death cell was a very overcrowded place.
“My cell was 8 by 10 feet room including the toilet space. It was made for a single person but there 8 to 10 people in that tiny room. So, almost every prisoner got 17 inches of space approximately,” Iqbal said.
It was a very difficult time for Iqbal as he had little hope that the ATC verdict would be reversed by the superior courts. But in 2000, the government of General Pervez Musharraf promulgated the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO) – a much-needed intervention also lobbied by the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell – according to this, no minor can be sentenced to death in any case.
In 2001, in light of the JJSO, the government issued another presidential notification and converted the death sentence of all minors, who were sentenced before the year 2000, into life imprisonment. This gave Iqbal a ray of hope. He filed an appeal against the ATC’s verdict in the Lahore High Court but the court rejected his plea and maintained the decision of the trial court.
He then filed a petition in the Supreme Court but it was also dismissed.
Iqbal then sent a mercy petition to the president but he was not very optimistic about it as he knew it was just a legal formality.
But in 2004, Iqbal’s family reached into a compromise with the complainants of the case, who, after receiving some amount, forgave Iqbal and submitted their written statement to the trial court. But the court rejected the statement and declared that Iqbal was convicted under terrorism charges hence the matter is non-compoundable.
Years passed with Iqbal on death row.
Then in 2008, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) came into power and put an unannounced moratorium on the death penalty. The ban was withdrawn in 2014 by the PML-N government after a terrorist attack in the Army Public School (APS) Peshawar.
In 2016, the president rejected Iqbal’s mercy petition after 13 years and Iqbal’s death warrants were issued. He was scheduled to be hanged on March 30.
This was the time when Iqbal had lost all hope.
“I had exhausted all legal avenues but no court was ready to give me relief under the 2001 presidential notification. I had only one option and that was death.”
Just a few days before his date of execution, Iqbal was shifted to the Gujrat Jail. The hanging was to take place there and all his belongings were taken away as he was shifted to a death cell.
“A doctor came into my cell and did my medical examination,” he remembers. “He put a mark on my neck so they could tie a noose. This was the time when I realized that my time was up.”
On March 28, a non-profit legal aid organization, Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), which represents vulnerable prisoners, filed a civil petition in the SC and pled for a stay in Iqbal’s execution. As a result, the apex court suspended the death warrant and a stay order was issued.
Narrowly, Iqbal escaped death.
After that Iqbal approached the Lahore High Court and asked for relief under the 2001 presidential notification. Finally this time, the court accepted Iqbal’s plea and commuted his death sentence into life imprisonment. After completing all legal procedures, Iqbal was finally freed on June 30, 2020.
Iqbal came back to his village Mianwal Ranjha, where everything has changed except his own house which is in an abysmal condition. The case not only wasted precious years of his life but also plunged his family into a financial crisis and overall despair.
According to Iqbal, if the judges had read his application emphatically and attentively, then his life and his family’s money could have been saved.
“People go to court by selling all their belongings just to seek justice. The system should know how difficult it is for a common man to approach a court. Judges should at least read an application carefully. The notification was issued in 2001 but no judge neither contemplated it nor implemented it,” he said.
Iqbal demanded that the government bring police reforms so that no other person has to suffer what he did.
“I know who is responsible for my misery but I don’t want to take any names now,” he said. “Our country’s system is very weird, I cannot blame any court or police official, but all I can say is that the police system should be rectified. It is very faulty.”