MIANWAL, Pakistan – Condemned to the gallows as a minor, Mohamed Iqbal spent more than half his life on death row, during which he was saved only hours before his planned execution.
Iqbal, who was released a month ago, now faces an uncertain future as a free man in an unknown world in a case that illustrates the shortcomings of Pakistan’s judicial system.
“I thought that death was the only way out. I had died mentally,” Iqbal, now 38, told EFE in the eastern village of Mianwal Ranjha, at his family residence that he last saw at the age of 17 in 1998 before police arrested him for a murder he claims he did not commit.
He remained in jail for 21 years.
Iqbal claims he confessed to the murder after eight days of “horrific” torture and was sentenced to death in 1999.
In 2000, Pakistan passed a law banning the death penalty for minors, but a bone-age test determined he was under 18.
He lived in cells measuring 2.5 by 3 square meters, designed for one prisoner but shared by seven.
He recalled that only three people could sleep at a time whereas the food was full of worms and the blankets carried insects.
In June 2020, a court commuted his death penalty to life imprisonment, eventually accepting that he was a minor at the time of the crime.
A life sentence in Pakistan means 25 years in prison. But after serving a minimum of 15 years, prisoners with good behavior can be released.
The judge determined that after 21 years in jail, Iqbal had served his sentence.
Iqbal learned that he would be released from a newspaper article. On June 30, he finally walked free.
In 2016, the authorities had issued the order for his execution after numerous unsuccessful appeals and the rejection of his mercy petition to the country’s president.
Iqbal thought his days were numbered.
A day before his execution, he bid farewell to his people. About 40 relatives met him for the final time in prison.
“I wanted to die and make my family get rid of me. They had spent lots of money in my case. When you are jailed, you are not the only one in jail but your family too,” he said.
By now, all was ready for his execution. Measurements were taken and health check-up was done.
“As per the measurement of the neck and height, they tie the rope. If the weight is less then, they tie sandbags to the feet to increase the weight needed to break the neck bone,” Iqbal said.
However, the execution was halted some 11 hours before it was scheduled to take place.
“I was reborn. I had died mentally,” he said.
The Supreme Court had decided to examine his case and determine if he was a minor when he committed the crime. But the appeal was once again dismissed.
It was then that nonprofit Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) began working on his case, and filed fresh appeals that helped secure his release four years later.
“His case is a reflection of the judicial system. This judgment gives us hope that things are changing,” JPP spokesperson Ali Haider Habib told EFE.
At least six prisoners convicted of crimes committed as minors were hanged between 2015-2016, according to JPP data.
Haider said two other minors are currently on death row in the country.
There are 4,225 people awarded capital punishment in Pakistan, making it one of the countries with the highest number of people sentenced to death.
In 2008, the government imposed a moratorium on capital punishment, which was greeted with joy in prisons, according to Iqbal.
But in 2014, following a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar (northwest) in which 125 children were killed, the government decided to resume executions.
Pakistan began carrying out executions at a rapid pace, with 333 hangings in 2015 alone.
Since the lifting of the moratorium, 515 people have been executed, 14 of them in 2019.
Pakistan accounts for one in seven sentences of capital punishment in the world, and one in eight executed is a Pakistani, according to a JPP study in 2018.
Amnesty International alleges that Pakistan violates international law and standards in its application of the death penalty, while local groups criticize police and judicial system for being ineffective, resulting in unfair sentences.
The inefficiency of the country’s judicial system was evident in 2016 when the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar of a murder, only to discover that they had been executed months earlier.
At least 10 of Iqbal’s friends in prison were executed.
Iqbal is still getting used to his new life in his village, which he did not recognize upon his return.
He is learning to ride a motorbike and use a tractor. Looking at the smartphone, he said enthusiastically “there were no phones like this before.”
He expressed his desire to get married and have a family.
But at the moment, he was focused on enjoying his new-found freedom.
“On the first night, I was sleeping in my home courtyard I saw stars in the sky for the first time after 21 years. I was looking at the stars almost the whole night and thinking how precious freedom is,” he said.