October 10, 2023

By Xari Jalil


“Who eats when they are sitting on death row, waiting to die?”

Iqbal Hussain, who is now living his life freely in his family home in Mandi Bahauddin, had been on death row for 20 years, until miraculously just a day before his execution was carried out, his death sentence was revoked.

In February 2020, in a landmark judgment, Hussain’s death sentence was commuted by the Lahore High Court and on June 30, he was released on the basis of his having completed the years of a life sentence.

But to this day Hussain trembles when he thinks of the time, and the experiences he had still gives him nightmares. Like many others who are prisoners of the death row, Hussain himself believes that being alive there is a fate worse than death.

On International Day against Death Penalty, Voicepk looks at the mental impact of a prisoner being on death row. Iqbal Hussain’s own experiences are terrible enough to denote what a prisoner specifically on death row faces.

“One is constantly aware about the brevity of life,” he says. “It feels as if life is made up of just a few moments. To make matters worse, that moment could come any day.”

The worst is when all appeals have been rejected by the courts, and the death sentence to be carried out comes closer and closer.

“The last two days are nerve wracking,”

says Hussain. “One by one you see others in separate cells being taken away for their hanging. “Come your black warrant is here,” say the guards and they take you away later. When they came to me, first they checked my cell thoroughly. Then they took away the shalwar cord and told me to replace it with an elastic in case I thought of committing suicide. Afterwards I had to undergo a complete medical test, including my weight, my height – all of which was a cool and calm method to determine how best to hang me. They even marked my neck. The medical test really drove the point home. My life was about to end.”

Hussain who spent these 20 years on and off alone, in solitary confinement says loneliness worsens life at death row.

“A man waiting on death row must not be left alone. The punishment is death, whether that man has been rightly convicted or not – but there is a double punishment of spending time in a death cell alone. There are times you only feel like banging your head against the wall. Your mind does not work properly anymore it seems. A person develops nervous tics, like shaking your leg, or something.”

The death cell itself in most Pakistani prisons is just an eight by 10 feet cell, living quarters so cramped that it is inhumane. The toilet area is also inside this.

When Iqbal Hussain first entered the cell, the space was being shared by around 8 to 10 people.

“We would have to sleep next to each other, hardly able to move. We could only sleep on our sides. But as each prisoner’s black warrants were released, I was left alone there, and spent time for several years.”

Motor and muscular problems are common with such little space.

“You can hardly get any exercise so your body begins to lose its strength and stamina.”

The night Hussain was to be hanged his stay order came at the last minute. But he only believed it to be true when dawn broke and the time for executions was over.

 It is important to note that Pakistan has signed the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 2010 – well before the existence of GSP+ – and the ICCPR calls for the death penalty only to be applied to the “most serious crimes”. However, Pakistan currently has 33 crimes that can lead to a death penalty.

Since the de-facto moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 2014, the country has executed 516 individuals. Pakistan also has almost 4,000 individuals on death row – around 15% of the world’s death row population.


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