Judge Allah Baksh Ranja made himself the most popular person in Pakistan yesterday when he sentenced a man who confessed to murdering 100 children to be strangled in a public park, cut into 100 pieces and thrown into a bath of acid. He also sentenced him to 700 years in prison.
Moeenuddin Haider, the Interior Minister, poured cold water on the sentence, telling reporters: "I'm sure this will be challenged in a higher court. We are a signatory to international conventions ... which do not allow these things."
Islamic sharia law and Pakistan's British-derived law have clashed frequently. Amputations and stonings have been ordered by the courts, but never carried out.
Javed Iqbal, 42, the man sentenced yesterday, became the author of his own downfall in December when he wrote to Lahore police claiming to have killed the children, many of them beggars and runaways, after sexually assaulting them. Reporters who beat police to the scene of the crime, Iqbal's home, found a drum of acid containing human remains, children's clothing, and placards giving details of the killings and photographs of victims.
Of Iqbal there was no trace. In his letter he said he would commit suicide. A month later he walked into the Lahore office of The News, a national paper, and said he had killed the children. "I have no regrets. I killed 100 children. I could have killed 500; this was not a problem ... but the pledge I had taken was 100 children, and I never wanted to violate this."
In his original letter he said he started killing to get back at the police for abuse at their hands several years before, when, he claimed, he was wrongly detained and beaten in custody. At the office of The News he said he had given himself up to a paper instead of the police because he feared the police might kill him. During the hunt for Iqbal one of his alleged accomplices, Ishaq Billa, died after falling from the third floor of the police station where he was being interrogated. He had reportedly been tortured.
Three of Iqbal's accomplices, including a 13-year-old boy identified only as Sabir, were also found guilty yesterday. An accomplice identified as 17-year-old Sajid, was found guilty on 98 counts of murder and sentenced to death and 686 years' jail. The third accomplice, Nadeem, convicted of 13 counts of murder, also received the death penalty and a 142-year jail term. Sabir was speared the death penalty but received a 42-year jail term.
Besides the scale of the killing and that the victims were young boys, other aspects of the case shocked Pakistan. Though his home was in a slum (and down the road from a police station), Iqbal was educated and relatively wealthy. A qualified chemical engineer, he inherited a share in his father's scrapmetal business said to be worth £50,000.
Several times since 1985 it was reported he was arrested on suspicion of child molestation and sodomy but was never brought to trial. Despite his repeated and gratuitous confessions and the evidence at his home, in court he pleaded not guilty. He told the judge his earlier admission had been a fake, inspired by Western detective stories. He said he had made up the confessions to bring the issue of absconding boys and paedophilia to the government's notice.
It was an explanation which did not amuse the crowds gathered outside the Lahore court throughout the two-month trial, baying for Iqbal's blood. The judge said he was not convinced by the accused man's explanation. The prosecution produced 105 witnesses, including 73 relatives of the missing children. Police said they had recovered the decomposed remains of three children from Iqbal's house, and photographs and clothes of dozens of other children. Iqbal said in his earlier confession that he and his associates cut the bodies into pieces after strangling the children with chains, then dissolved them in acid and disposed of them in the city sewer.
Iqbal's lawyer, Abdul Baqi, told the court: "Police threatened Iqbal during his three-week remand, which resulted in the confessional statement being made under duress." He said his client would appeal.
So, instead of ending speedily, in accordance with the judge's wishes, in a spectacular act of retribution before the victims' parents, Iqbal's case is likely to meander through Pakistan's judicial system for several years. If he is executed, it will be on the gallows.