Islamabad: Prison authorities in Pakistan halted the execution of a disabled inmate on Tuesday on technical grounds in a case that has focused attention on the country’s use of capital punishment.
Attorneys for the prisoner, Abdul Basit, said the execution was not carried out because he could not be made to stand on the gallows, as required under Pakistani capital punishment procedures. Basit is paralysed from the waist down and cannot walk or stand.
Authorities at Faisalabad Central Jail, where Basit is imprisoned, will petition Pakistan’s Supreme Court to seek fresh orders to carry out the execution, according to reports. Family members said they hoped the high court would grant Basit a permanent stay of execution.
“He is still alive,” said Basit’s sister, Shagufta Sultana. “We have been told that he could not be executed on technical grounds. But why don’t they stop it on humanitarian grounds?”
The case has shocked human rights groups, which have accused Pakistan of carrying out “a conveyor belt of executions” since lifting a moratorium on capital punishment in December. Many of the executions have involved inmates who were abused in custody or deprived of fair trials, activists say.
The case of Basit, 43, has drawn particular scrutiny because of his disability, the result of an illness he contracted while in prison. His inability to stand poses a grim set of logistical complications in his possible execution.
Pakistani prison rules specify that the length of the rope used in a hanging be measured according to the prisoner’s height while standing _ too long and the prisoner could suffer severe injuries, too short and he could be decapitated.
Basit, who has two sons and hails from the textile-producing city of Faisalabad, was convicted and sentenced to death in 2009 for killing a man who was an uncle of a woman with whom he was reportedly in a relationship. He insists he is innocent.
While in jail in August 2010, he developed a fever that became so severe that he fell into a coma for about three weeks. He was diagnosed with tubercular meningitis, which damaged his spinal cord.
Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights group whose lawyers represent death row inmates including Basit, said he was paralyzed as a result of negligence by jail authorities, who delayed sending him to a hospital for treatment. The group has argued that executing a paralyzed individual would violate “the fundamental right to human dignity enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan”.
A senior official of the prisons department in Punjab province, which includes Faisalabad, said Pakistani law allowed for halting an execution only if the prisoner was found to be mentally disabled.
A medical report by hospital officials in Faisalabad, released by Basit’s lawyers, said he had no function in his lower limbs, diminished control of his upper limbs and was unable to control his bladder or bowel movements.
“In our opinion, patients with this condition are usually permanently disabled and there is almost no chance of any recovery,” wrote doctors at the city’s Allied Hospital who analyzed him last month. “He is likely to remain bed-bound for his life.”
His mother, Nusrat Perveen, said after meeting with him last month that he had developed bed sores and was reduced to “a skeleton”.
“He is already half dead. I do not know why they want to kill him further,” she said.
Basit’s case is the latest to focus international attention on Pakistan’s justice system, which has been hanging prisoners at the rate of about one a day since the country lifted the moratorium.
Pakistan resumed the executions as part of a raft of counter-terrorism measures after a devastating militant attack on an army-run school. But human rights groups say that many of those put to death were convicted in cases unrelated to terrorism and that at least one man, Shafqat Hussain, was a child at the time of his alleged crime.
“Instead of debating the logistics of how to put a man in a wheelchair to death, the authorities in Pakistan should grant reprieve to Abdul Basit,” said Sultana Noon, Pakistan researcher with Amnesty International.
About 8,000 prisoners remain on death row in Pakistan, Amnesty said.
Perveen said she had sold her house and belongings to raise money to fight Basit’s case. Like other relatives, Perveen maintained that Basit is innocent.
“He was trapped in this murder,” she said. “I beg authorities, for God’s sake, do not take away my son.”