When the judge read out a sentence of death, 17-year-old Muhammad Iqbal could scarcely believe it, and reached out for his brother.
As guards converged upon him to escort him away from the courtroom and back to prison, the teenager was desperate to speak to his family.
“The words ‘sentenced to death’, I didn’t know much at that time about appeals and everything else,” he recalls, sitting on a rope bed in the winter sunshine in his native Mandi Bahauddin, in central Pakistan. “I thought they were going to execute me [right then].
“My brother was in the courtroom at the time of the verdict, I called to him, to see him one last time and to say goodbye to him.”
Iqbal, now 39, would spend 21 years on death row before a court ruled earlier this year that he had been sentenced incorrectly, commuting his sentence and releasing him on June 30.
During his trial, where he was convicted for murder, he says he was largely unaware of how the legal proceedings functioned, a concern that is emblematic of fair trial concerns in a country where the death penalty is applied widely, according to lawyers and activists.
Pakistan is one of 56 countries worldwide who retain the use of the death penalty in law and practice. In 2019, it continued to hold the world’s largest recorded death row population, with more than 4,225 people awaiting execution, according to rights group Amnesty International.
Pakistan’s penal code carries the death penalty for at least 33 crimes, ranging from murder, gang rape and kidnapping to blasphemy, adultery, treason and various narcotics charges. The Pakistani government is currently considering a proposal to expand the use of the penalty and to add public hanging as a form of execution.
“The reason [for expanding the scope for rape cases] is that there is no deterrence,” says Faisal Javed Khan, a senator for the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party. “We want severe punishments for rapists because there is no deterrence whatsoever.”
In 2019, Pakistan held the record for the most death sentences handed out by its court system, with more than 632 convicts sentenced to death, which is 27.3 percent of all death sentences worldwide, according to Amnesty’s data.
For prisoners like Iqbal, accused of murder, the problems begin right from the moment of arrest.
‘Needed to escape that hell’
“They tortured me, telling me to confess to the crime,” he says, of the days after he was arrested by police in connection with a robbery near his home in which a man was killed.
“Under torture, I confessed that I had done it, I was so desperate that I accepted responsibility for it. I just needed to escape that hell somehow.”
Pakistani police deny the use of torture officially, but rights groups have documented its routine use by police across the country, particularly in cases of violent crime.
Iqbal, whose family owns a small farm where they grow rice, wheat and fodder for their five buffaloes, did not have the resources, or knowledge of the justice system, to hire a competent lawyer, and his trial was conducted swiftly, taking no note of his allegations of a confession obtained under torture.
“I had […] the kind of lawyer who just files 13 bail applications a day. My father didn’t have the money to hire anyone else,” he says.
“He never met me. I only saw him many months later during a hearing, to know that this man is my lawyer.”
Access to the right lawyer, in a justice system like Pakistan’s, where a case depends greatly on proceedings at the trial court level, can be the difference between life and death, say experts.
“It really does make a huge difference – if you have a committed lawyer or if you have a lawyer who knows the judges, which comes with a heavy price tag,” says Reema Omer, South Asia legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ).
“Who you are plays a huge role in the kinds of lawyers you will get, how quickly the case is decided, the kind of facilities you get in prison, and whether you are even aware of your rights as an accused or a convict.”