In conversation with Sarah Belal, Founder of Justice Project Pakistan

She belongs to that rare minuscule group of people who work for the forgotten of Pakistan: the unfairly jailed, the mentally ill locked up for life or until death, the shoddily tried sentenced-to-death. Her work is difficult; filled with obstacles social, legal, and bureaucratic. It is mostly silent, inaudibly appreciated. Families of the people she helps are indebted to her for life. The ones whose lives she saves, those whose rights she fights for do not post fawning odes. They are the viceless, faceless Pakistanis whose fate is as bleak as the cells in which they are locked up to die unheard, alone. She does not forget them for a moment.

Sarah Belal is one of my special heroes for two reasons: her endless empathy and her uncompromising courage. I wish one day I could do a bit of what she does. What I can do is highlight a little of what she does every day.

Barrister Sarah Belal, a law graduate from the University of Oxford, is the Founder and Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), “a legal action non-profit organisation that provides pro bono representation to the most vulnerable Pakistani prisoners facing harsh punishments in the courts of law and the court of public opinion.”

Sarah has also assisted as a member on two court-appointed commissions and has aided the Lahore High Court as amicus curiae.

In 2013, Sarah was awarded the prestigious Echoing Green Global Fellowship, honouring “JPP as the first Pakistani organisation to be recognised in the fellowship’s 25-year history.” In 2016, Sarah was awarded the inaugural Franco-German Prize for Human Rights, and the National Human Rights Award by the President of Pakistan.

I asked Barrister Sarah Belal a few questions:

Mehr Tarar: Tell us about the genesis of the Justice Project Pakistan?

Sarah Belal: I did not grow up with the dream of founding the Justice Project Pakistan. I attended law school after working for my father’s textile business. I was unhappy working in the business world, and I wanted to do something about the injustice I saw all around me.

And then as fate would have it—which it often does—I picked up the Dawn newspaper one morning while having coffee and saw a letter to the editor by a man whose brother was sentenced to be executed. A father of two, Zulfikar, had been accused in self-defence of killing the man who had tried to mug him. I just picked up the phone, called the newspaper’s office, and got his brother’s number. The next thing I knew, he was standing outside my door with a mountain of case files.

That was 2009. I convinced Maryam Haq, a young lawyer I had met, to quit her job and help me save that man’s life. We set up shop at in a small space in my father’s office with some borrowed furniture and rolled up our sleeves. It’s been over a decade. JPP has grown, the cases we work on have multiplied, but what drives us every day remains the same: retribution is not justice.

What as the founder of JPP is your fundamental objection to capital punishment in its present form in Pakistan’s legal system?

We want the application of the death penalty in Pakistan to be in line with the Quranic teachings and international law. It must only be reserved for the most serious of crimes. Islam preaches mercy and forgiveness and prescribes the death penalty for only two crimes. The Islamic standard for imposing the death penalty is so strict it must be only imposed in the rarest of rare cases. Pakistan, however, has the death penalty for 33 crimes. Our history and data show that it doesn’t work. We have huge problems in our criminal justice system that result in many people wrongfully convicted and hanged.

When did you last hear of a rich man being hanged? A politician can run over a policeman in broad daylight, under the eye of a camera, and go scot free. But still, Pakistan has one of the largest death row populations in the world. In our rush to execute, we have sentenced some of the most vulnerable people among us to the harshest irreversible punishment. I know because I have defended people on death row, people who are so mentally ill they don’t even know why they’re imprisoned. People with physical disabilities who cannot even stand or care for their own hygiene. A woman who was so severely tortured, she hasn’t spoken a word in over 20 years.

My objection is with our justice system. One that is so fundamentally flawed—from arrest to trial to conviction–that people have been acquitted after being executed, as was the case with two brothers from Bahawalpur. The Supreme Court acquitted Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar in 2016 only to be told they had already been hanged a year earlier.

We need to take a deep, close look at ourselves and ask the question: who are we really hanging?

What are some of the most significant efforts of JPP to highlight the imperativeness of placing a moratorium on capital punishment in Pakistan?

JPP is not here for abolishment of the death penalty. We want it to be in line with the Quranic teachings and international law. We very strongly believe that a moratorium should be placed until our criminal justice system can ensure that no one will be wrongfully sentenced or executed.

In the same vein, JPP has been responsible for securing approximately 40 stays of execution. These were all prisoners with mitigating factors such as mental or physical illnesses, loopholes in their trials, or strong evidence of juvenility at the time of the offence. Last year, after years of fighting in and out of court, the Lahore High Court commuted the sentence of Muhammad Iqbal, a juvenile who should have never been handed the death sentence in the first place but whose commutation was due for 19 years according to a presidential order dated 2001.

In February 2021, the Supreme Court of Pakistan delivered a landmark judgement prohibiting the execution of severely mentally ill prisoners and laying down a detailed framework for infrastructure in prisons to diagnose illnesses and provide mental healthcare. The judgment has been lauded by the United Nations and the international community as an extremely progressive and farsighted order and is a milestone Pakistan’s judiciary should be proud of.

We have also produced art and theatre projects to advocate for reforms in the criminal justice system. One of our most successful projects was a live 24-hour stream charting the last day of a prisoner’s life before his execution. After that, many people told me they had never really thought about the death penalty and who it was affecting. That JPP can make people pause, think, and ask themselves that question, that, for me, is our biggest achievement.

How is the concept of public hanging denunciated in our religious, legal, and constitutional set of values?

Under the Constitution of Pakistan 1973, the dignity of a man is inviolable, and any law passed inconsistent with or in derogation of the fundamental rights shall be declared void. Several bills regarding the public hanging of rapists were introduced in National Assembly but were always rejected because the Supreme Court had already passed a ruling. This also indicates that there is a fundamental acknowledgment by a large number of our countrymen that public hanging is inherently wrong.

There are countries that have in the past hanged 700 to 800 people a year for drug offences, but it still did not bring down crime. One of them has learnt this the hard way that public hangings and capital punishment do not serve as deterrents.

In February 2020, a resolution in support of public hanging was presented in the lower house after the sexual abuse and killing of an eight-year-old girl. Even though some lawmakers were in favour, Pakistan’s Minister for Human Rights stated that the government does not sponsor such an act in any way. PPP also objected to the resolution as such an action would be in violation of the rights mentioned under the United Nations Charter, according to which “culprits cannot be hanged publicly.”

Police officers, prison officials and law enforcement personnel have all been in unanimous agreement that it is a terrible idea.

Public hangings adversely impact the psycho-social wellbeing of children by immunising them to violence. Children who witness such violence are more likely to reproduce it at an older age. While the debate surrounding the instatement of public hanging for child sex rape is framing it as a child protection measure, it is likely to have an extremely adverse impact on the wellbeing of Pakistani children who would witness it. Public hangings, wherever they take place, are spectacles that are conducted in front of large jeering crowds, and children that view them are likely to perceive them as theatrical performances thereby becoming desensitised to the violence.

Public hanging is also against the fundamental teachings of most religions. In 1994, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took suo moto notice regarding public hanging and execution of rapists. A five-member bench held that public hanging cannot be justified even for the worst of criminals and would be in violation to the right of human dignity enshrined under Article 14 of the Constitution.

The Supreme Court relied upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, whose Article 7 states that no state has the power to torture a criminal, especially if he is still a suspect. The Muslim scholars that formulated this declaration are of the view that “God will inflict punishment on those who have inflicted torture in this world.”

In another case, the Supreme Court held that the right to dignity is the most valuable right that must be observed in every civilised society.

The Federal Shariat Court has also held that the dignity of man is an inviolable and inalienable right. “The accused must not be made subject to torture under Article 14 of the Constitution.”

Pakistan’s domestic law as well as Islamic principles render public hanging unlawful. In addition to an indigenous denunciation of the practice, Pakistan is a signatory to several international instruments which outlaw the same, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). One of its monitoring bodies, Human Rights Committee, states that public hanging would amount to violation of the right to human dignity under the ICCPR. Moreover, they stressed that capital punishments should not be carried out publicly.

Finally, there is no empirical evidence to indicate that the death penalty, particularly public hanging, has a deterrent impact on crime.

Your work for people suffering from mental illnesses sentenced to death is outstanding. How did you think of helping the most vulnerable?

I am fortunate to be privileged enough to help others. I am very aware of how my life has been very different from most Pakistanis, and I try to use that privilege to speak for those who may find it hard to speak for themselves.

When we started working on the death penalty, we realised that so many mentally ill people end up sentenced to death because of a lack of understanding and information. I was visiting Lahore Central Jail in Kot Lakhpat with my colleague Maryam in 2015, and a frail, old woman ran up to us and said we were the only ones who could save her son’s Khizar Hayat’s life. Hayat, a former police officer, had severe paranoid schizophrenia and was accused of killing a fellow policeman. When I met him, I saw a scar running down his forehead and across his face. He had been brutally assaulted by fellow inmates.

Thus started a long and arduous journey of litigating for Hayat and other mentally ill prisoners on death row. There were so many obstacles then. At one point, the Supreme Court even said schizophrenia wasn’t a mental disorder. And look where we are now. The whole world lauded the Supreme Court’s recent judgement.

It all started with Khizar Hayat, who unfortunately died of multiple ailments shackled to a hospital bed in 2019. It makes my heart heavy to think that we could not save him, but I also have hope that now others like him won’t suffer the same travesty of justice.

The Government of Punjab in collaboration with JPP is in the process of redrafting Pakistan Prisons Rules, 1978. Your comment.

Our prison rules are another colonial legacy that we still struggle to shake off. The Pakistan Prisons Rules, 1978 are archaic at best and barbaric at worst. Punjab and Balochistan are the only two provinces that have not passed amended prison rules. Sindh revised its rules in 2019, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa the year before. It was only a matter of time before Punjab got to it, too.

We are fortunate to have the privilege to work on the revised rules with the Punjab government, which I must appreciate for its hard work and perseverance. All the stakeholders, from politicians to bureaucrats, have truly allowed empathy to dictate future provisions and have very patiently heard our suggestions. We are grateful to the government for allowing us the opportunity to offer our input and hope the rules will soon be passed into law so we can finally shed the long-held baggage of our colonisers.

In a system marked with travesties of justice, what are some of your key achievements?

There is this sheer relief of saving a life whenever we successfully get an execution stayed. And then to see people who have suffered so much be united with their families. That will always be our top achievement. 42 men who were released from Bagram, and Iqbal and Anwar who were released after spending nearly two and three decades on death row, respectively, that’s what keeps us going.

We are working to push for more reforms in the criminal justice system like a specific law criminalising torture and reforming the mercy petition process. The Supreme Court judgement on mentally ill prisoners is testament to the fact that things can and do change. We just have to be willing to fight for them.



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