LAHORE  -  The fate of thousands of death-row prisoners hangs in the balance as the federal government failed to come up with a clear-cut policy to deal with convicts over the last five years.

The general elections 2018 are due in July with Pakistan having largest death-row population in the world. Perhaps, the new government will be able to decide the fate of condemned prisoners languishing in jails for decades.

Currently, at least 6,000 to 8,000 prisoners await execution across the country. Most of those put on the death row were convicted in murder cases. Hundreds among them have exhausted their appeals and their clemency appeals are rejected as well.

In December 2014, Pakistan lifted seven-year unofficial moratorium on the death penalty in response to the deadliest attack on Army Public School in Peshawar. The executions picked up momentum in 2015 with 332 convicts sent to gallows.

However, the executions dropped drastically in 2016 and 2017. At least 87 convicts were hanged across the country in 2016 while 44 convicts were executed in 2017.  According to Justice Project Pakistan, at least 495 convicts have been hanged in the country since the moratorium was lifted.

It is not clear yet why the executions of murder convicts are halted this year again. But key international players called for an immediate halt to executions after the country had suspended the ban on the death penalty for all convicts.

Many among those hanged to death in recent years were terrorists in addition to murderers.

In 2016, several inmates were hanged to death in murder cases reported by police almost 20 years ago. They remained in the prisons for 15 to 20 years before they were executed. Among them were double-murder convicts Mansha Munees and Salman Munees who were hanged in the Lahore’s Central Prison on February 4, 2017. The police had reported the offense in 1996.

Similarly, Allah Ditta who had murdered his wife in 1999 was executed in district jail Jhang on January 19, 2016 after remaining on the death row for more than 15 years.

While rights activists call for reforms in the criminal justice system stating that the death penalty does not deter crimes, the police officers think otherwise.

Police investigators and jail officers interviewed for this story say executions help control crime particularly murders in this society where thousands of people are killed each year.

Police official Mubarak says if the convicts will not be hanged for many years the impact of the punishment will vanish. “We are bound to follow the law that awards death penalty to the killers. If the convicts will not be executed on fast-track, the rising murder rate will not be controlled. If the punishment is awarded after 15 or 20 years, it will not make any different because even the victim family, after so many years, will forget what had happened to them,” he said.

Police officer Ahmad, who works at a police station in Lahore to exclusively investigate the murder cases, said thousands of people are murdered due to one or another reason each year in this province. “The suspects are arrested by police, sent to jails, and convicted in the courts. They must be punished under the laws,” he said.

In recent years, the Punjab Police established special homicide cells at each police station to probe murder case. Nayab Haider, a police spokesman said, the murder cases are thoroughly investigated.

He says the police use multiple resources and techniques to probe homicides and ensure conviction. “The Homicide Investigation Cells are set up in each police station of the province to exclusively investigate murder incidents. This (murders) has become a complete subject for the policing because of high murder rate in the province,” he explained.

Farooq Nazir, former Inspector General of Prisons says that 95 percent of those put on the death row were sentenced to death in murder cases. A few drug convicts are also on the death row in Punjab, he said.

Nazir, who served in Punjab for many years to lead the Prisons Department, defends the capital punishment stating that it works as deterrence. “Hundreds of people are murdered (in Punjab) every month. But only a few convicts are hanged,” he said. “The convicts are given fair trails. Even they can compromise with the heirs of the deceased under the laws.”

The former prisons police chief said at least 4,000 convicts are on the death row in the Punjab province where police reported 1,213 murdered cases during the first four months of this year.

According to him, when suspects are convicted in homicides and awarded death sentence by the district courts they are called “unconfirmed condemned prisoners” and when their appeals are rejected by the higher courts they are named as “confirmed condemned prisoners.” Once the black warrants are issued, the convicts are hanged in jails within a week, he said. The convicts can appeal to the higher courts and the superior courts and even they can file mercy petitions, he argued.

He went on to say the ratio of homicides is zero in the countries where murder convicts are executed on fast-track like Singapore, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. He said only a few murder convicts are hanged in Pakistan after years long legal wrangling. “The impact of the punishment disappears if the convicts are sentenced after 20 years,” he said.

Rimmel Mohydin of Justice Project Pakistan, a group which follows the cases of the death-row inmates, said most of the murder convicts belonged to poor families.

When asked whether the capital punishment helps downgrade murder ratio, she rejected the police claims. “This is, in fact, untrue,” she said. “There are up to 8,000 prisoners on death row in Pakistan. The only common factor is that they are poor and therefore unable to afford lawyers who can prove them innocent. There are no millionaires on the death row,” she said.

Rights activists say the country’s criminal justice system is too complicated and mired in corruption. They say the poor can’t hire strong defense lawyers. “None of the millionaire is put on the death row. The lawyers of poor convicts don’t appear in the courts even after accepting fees,” said Mohydin, Head of Communications at the Justice Project Pakistan.

“Pakistan’s legal infrastructure is faulty, mired in red tape, and beholden to power. This creates a permissive environment for the routine miscarriage of justice,” Mohydin said.

Akram says he was working in the fields when he came know that one of his relatives was shot dead by another. Consequently, three men were charged in the murder case and Akram was one of them.

“I had nothing to do with that murder. But nobody was ready to listen to my requests,” Akram told The Nation during a brief interview. “Ultimately, I was handed life-term while the other two men were sentenced to death by the district courts.”

All the three convicts spent almost 10 years in the Sahiwal District Jail before they appealed to the Lahore High Court from the prison. The Lahore High Court last year acquitted all the three men in the murder case of the ex-schoolteacher.

“There were many flaws in the investigation (of this murder case). The police and the lawyers failed to establish the facts before a two-judge bench. So, the trio acquitted by the court,” said Mr Riaz who represented one of the convicts.

“Jails are hell. Life is outside,” said Akram who returned to his fields after spending 10 years in the prison for the crime he say he never committed. “Poor convicts are humiliated, tortured, and abused in the prisons,” Akram recalls. “We had to do hard labour in the jail to skip torture.”

But Madad Ali, the eldest son of the murdered schoolteacher, asks a simple question. He says that if the trio was innocent then who killed his father. “My father was shot dead in broad daylight. Who killed him and why?”

Ali has the right to challenge the High Courts’ decision and file an appeal in the Supreme Court of Pakistan. But he says that his family was already hand-to-mouth after fighting a lengthy legal battle.

Mubeen Butt is one of thousands of prisoners put on the death-row in Pakistan. He was arrested in connection with a murder case registered in Lahore’s Mozang police station almost a decade ago.

Mubeen’s brother spoke to the Nation last week and said that the family would badly miss him on the upcoming Eid, a religious festival celebrated across the Muslim World by at the end of fasting month.

“We visit the jail to see Mubeen once in a month because we can’t pay the jail staff for the meetings. The jails staff is too much demanding. They rob us whenever we go to the jail to see my brother. They also steal food items,” he said.

Dozens of prisoners die in jails across the Punjab province each year because of diseases caused by poor sanitary conditions and lack of healthcare.

“All the prisons are overcrowded,” said Zaman who spent several years in Faisalabad Jail after being arrested on house-robbery charges. “The jail staff tortures the inmates to extort cash from their relatives. The poor prisoners are abused and humiliated every day in jails,” he said.

Rimmel Mohydin says that there is an urgent need to improve our sentencing laws, with an emphasis of rehabilitation and human right. “We have proven that the death penalty does not deter crimes. So, the solution lies in the broader societal problems that engender and encourages crimes. It’s not the easy way but it’s the right way,” she said.

According to Justice Project Pakistan, Iqbal was just 17-year-old when he was sentenced to death for a botched robbery. His case was tried by an anti-terrorism court even though his crime had nothing to do with terrorism. The fact of his juvenility, doubts in the prosecution’s case, and even forgiveness by victim’s family failed to save him.

“He is almost 40-year-old now and still remains on the death row in a Punjab’s jail. His case is a stark reminder of the dire need to reform Anti-Terrorism Act, starting with how it defines terrorism itself,” said Mohydin.

Iqbal’s death warrants were suspended last year on the intervention of the National Commission for Human Rights, she said. The convicts remain on the death as authorities are asked to determine his age first.