For the second time in as many years, Shafqat Hussain was told to prepare for execution. But growing outcry over the death sentence handed down to the then-14-year-old whose body still bears scars from torture may have earned Hussain a second last-minute reprieve.
Hussain was arrested in 2004 at the age of 14, and convicted by a Pakistani anti-terrorism court of kidnapping and killing a child — charges later reduced to involuntary manslaughter.
"He still carries burn marks on his body from where cigarette stubs were put out on him"
Rights groups say that Hussain was innocent and that his "confession" came after nine days of torture by electrocutions, beatings and more. Even worse, they say, is that he was a juvenile at the time of the alleged crime which also was tried in an anti-terrorism court despite falling far short of traditional definitions of what constitutes terrorism.
Hussain's inclusion on a list of "terrorists" is why his name came up last month when Pakistan lifted its unofficial six-year moratorium on the death penalty in response to a deadly Taliban attack in Peshawar that killed more than 140 children. His death warrant was issued Saturday and date with the gallows set for January 14. Hussain’s family was told Monday to prepare for a “final meeting.”
But hours later, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan told parliament the execution would be halted pending an inquiry into concerns over the now 23-year-old's conviction, according to the Hussain's lawyers at the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). Those concerns were flagged by numerous human-rights organizations incredulous over how Hussain's case was handled and how he came to be labeled a terrorist.
Shafqat Hussain was born to a poor farmer in Pakistan’s rural Azad Kashmir region. When his father suffered a stroke, Hussain’s family was plunged further into poverty. Hussain’s learning disability made school a struggle, according to JPP, which said that he decided to drop out and help support his parents and six siblings.
Hussain went to Karachi and found work as a security guard at a building under construction. Some families had moved into parts of the building as construction moved along, and Hussain grew close to one family in particular — often playing with the children and even helping to babysit. When one of the children went missing, Hussain helped the family search and file a police report. Just over a month later, police came to arrest Hussain and charged him with kidnapping and murder. He was 14 years old.
While Hussain confessed to the murder, he later told a court he had only done so under torture.
“He still carries burn marks on his body from where cigarette stubs were put out on him, his genitals were electrocuted,” Shahab Siddiqi, head of communications for JPP, told NBC News.
But the court did not investigate the validity of the confessions or torture allegations, and the teen’s legal counsel never raised the issue of his age at the time of the alleged crime — despite the fact that Pakistan has ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Both prohibit capital punishment of anyone who was under 18 at the time of an alleged offense, according to Human Rights Watch. The country’s own Juvenile Justice Ordinance bears similar prohibitions.
Hussain’s case has cast a spotlight on the broad-brush approach to Pakistan's terrorism cases thanks to a vague definition. There are currently more than 17,000 pending terrorism cases, according to JPP, and crimes that could easily be handled under Pakistan’s regular penal code — like kidnapping and murder — are regularly sent to courts set up to prosecute acts of terrorism, rights groups say.
“The law is just so vague that anybody can use these courts to get speedy trials,” Siddiqi said. “The definition is being abused, the courts themselves are being abused.”
With no links to any acts of terrorism or known terror organizations, JPP and other rights groups insist that Hussain's execution would be a mistake.
“He's not a terrorist,” Siddiqi said. “He's a kid who was tried in front of the wrong court, who was too poor to afford counsel that would point out very, very basic flaws in the way he was tried,” Siddiqi said.
Other human-rights organizations have urged Pakistan’s government to change course again and reinstate the moratorium.
“The massacre in Peshawar was a tragedy, but hasty symbolic executions of potentially innocent people would be a grave stain on Pakistan’s justice system and do nothing to reduce the threat of terrorism,” said Maya Foa, director of U.K.-based Reprieve.
Last year, Hussain's execution date was set for Aug. 25 and letters were sent to his family informing them to say their goodbyes. That stay of execution came just hours before he was due to hang.
Despite Monday's announcement in Parliament about a stay, Karachi prison officials have not yet been formally instructed to halt Hussain's execution and are continuing to make the necessary preparations, according to JPP.
“As far as prison authorities are concerned, they are still on schedule for the 14th,” Siddiqi said. “Until that notification comes to the prison authorities his life remains at risk.”
While Hussain's lawyers are optimistic that will come soon, they also hope that their client will be cleared in the longterm and allowed to return home to his parents. They have not seen their son since he left home 10 years ago — and do not know about the execution order.
“They're so old and so unwell that the family is concerned that if they're told they'll take a turn,” Siddiqi explained. “They just know he's in prison but they don’t know about the death warrant.”