Clemency plea for Briton facing death in Pakistan

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The Independent Online

Four weeks today, a British man is due to be hanged in Pakistan for a crime he almost certainly did not commit - and which Pakistan's courts acquitted him of 10 years ago. Mirza Tahir Hussain is to be executed after an investigation in which a Pakistani judge ruled that the police had "fabricated evidence in a shameless manner" against him.

Mr Hussain, 36, from Leeds, has spent 18 years in a tiny darkened cell, for murdering a taxi driver. Despite Pakistan's secular courts acquitting him 10 years ago, he was found guilty by an Islamic sharia court.

Now Mr Hussain's family are asking Tony Blair to intervene with Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf to save him. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Law Society of England and Wales have backed calls for the execution to be halted on the grounds of an unfair trial.

Twice, President Musharraf has intervened days before Mr Hussain was due to be hanged, but only to order 30-day stays of execution. So far, he has refused to pardon Mr Hussain or commute his sentence.

Aged 18, Mr Hussain travelled to Pakistan in 1988 to visit relatives. He arrived in the city of Rawalpindi late on the night of 17 December and tried to find a taxi to take him to his family village of Bhubar. Eventually one driver agreed to take him for 500 rupees.

Later that night, Mr Hussain drove up to a police station in the taxi. Inside was the dead body of the driver and the gun with which he had been killed. He was arrested and charged.

Mr Hussain has maintained that the taxi driver stopped the car and tried to sexually assault him. When he resisted, the driver pulled the gun. In the scuffle that ensued, the gun went off and the driver was killed. Investigations proved that the gun belonged to the driver.

Mr Hussain was born in Pakistan but his parents brought him to the UK as a baby, where he took British citizenship and served in the Territorial Army. It was his first trip back to Pakistan.

He was tried for murder and sentenced to death, but on appeal the High Court in Lahore ruled that there had been serious flaws in the prosecution's case. The case was retried and Mr Hussain was sentenced to life imprisonment, but on appeal the High Court overturned that sentence too and acquitted him. On 20 May 1996, Mr Hussain was fully acquitted of all charges.

But just one week later, the Islamic sharia courts intervened. Pakistan has two parallel legal systems: the secular courts, which are based on English common law, and the sharia courts, which implement Islamic religious law.

Suddenly the sharia court, which had shown no interest in Mr Hussain's case for eight years, claimed it fell within its jurisdiction. Murder does not ordinarily come under the sharia courts, but the court argues it was a case of armed robbery, a crime which does.

Under Islamic law, at least two witnesses are required to find a defendant guilty of armed robbery. None were produced. It was proved in court that Mr Hussain hired the taxi for 500 rupees, and the gun was in the driver's possession. Despite these flaws, the three judges found him guilty in a 2-1 decision.

The dissenting judge, Abdul Wahid Siddiqui, gave a 59-page written judgment in which he excoriated the prosecution case and the police investigation. Mr Hussain was "an innocent, raw youth not knowing the mischief and filth in which the police of this country is engrossed," he wrote. The police had fabricated evidence against the Briton and introduced false witnesses, the judge wrote.

Among the irregularities to have emerged are the fact that the police fired the gun with which the driver had been killed in order to produce a bullet for the trial.

Despite the flaws in the sharia court trial, its verdict was upheld on appeal by Pakistan's Supreme Court.

"My brother should be brought back home and I'm asking Tony Blair to intervene personally," Mr Hussain's brother Amjad, who has given up his business and spent all his savings fighting to save his brother, said yesterday.

"As a whole sharia law does have a decent standard of evidence," says Sarah Green of Amnesty International. The problem, she says, is that the sharia court did not adhere to its own laws in this case.

Now Mr Hussain's only hopes are a pardon or reduction of his sentence from President Musharraf, or for the family of the dead taxi driver to accept blood money and forgive him under Islamic law. Mr Hussain's relatives have been negotiating with the driver's family, and Islamic clerics have tried to mediate.

The Pakistani authorities have claimed that under the constitution, President Musharraf is powerless to pardon Mr Hussain. But, according Ms Green: "There are cases where he's commuted death sentences."

Mr Hussain has spent half his life in jail in a foreign country. And on 1 September, unless someone intervenes, he will die there.