While David Cameron gives up on the UK's global battle against the death penalty, Pakistan has just hanged an innocent man

The death of Shafqat Hussain is a reminder of the UK's human rights retreat

Click to follow

Seven times, the Pakistan government told Shafqat Hussain they were going to hang him. Seven times, his hanging was stopped right at the last minute. When he was saying his final goodbyes, almost as he was en route to the gallows, Shafqat was turned around and sent back to a jail cell.

Seven times, someone in authority in Pakistan heeded calls from the press, from the UN, and from local and international bodies, calling on them not to execute a person who was a juvenile when he was arrested and who ‘confessed’ to a crime he probably did not commit only when subjected to brutal police torture. More than 35,000 people from around the world wrote to Pakistan’s President calling for mercy.

Seven times, those working from Reprieve - a small organisation of human rights defenders - in London, alongside Shafqat’s lawyers in Pakistan, did everything in their power to stop the execution. We breathed heavy sighs of relief each time his life was spared.

Sadly, there were those in power in Pakistan who seemed obsessed with killing Shafqat. As the sun rose in Karachi on Tuesday morning, Shafqat was hanged.

Proponents of the death penalty always cry for revenge, and it is true that we must remember the innocent victim, even though Shafqat did not kill him. But imagine a deranged killer who conducted a mock murder of the victim six times over several months before finally carrying it through. The barbarism would be almost beyond comprehension. Yet Shafqat was tortured by the police when he was first arrested as a kid, and tortured by the government right up until he was executed more than a decade later.

Next in line for the hangman’s noose in Pakistan are two men. Khizar Hayat has beendiagnosed with schizophrenia. Khizar is a former police officer kept in effective solitary confinement who suffers from delusions and has no idea why he is in jail or what is happening to him. Another man set for execution is Abdul Basit, a paraplegic man in a wheelchair. He is paralysed because after he became unwell the prison authorities failed to medicate him properly. Basit contracted TB meningitis and slipped into a coma. He has been in a wheelchair ever since. One might think they have both suffered enough. Yet last week they were issued with execution warrants only to then be given last-minute stays.


In the UK, thankfully, we recognized the death penalty for being state-sanctioned torture and murder long ago. We pride ourselves on leading the way towards global abolition, speaking out against these horrific abuses of human rights – nay, of basic humanity. Yet just this week as Shafqat was preparing, for the seventh time, to be hanged, it emerged that the British government has decided to drop its Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty and significantly scale back its work to end capital punishment. The UK’s retreat from its human rights obligations is even more shocking at a time that the Pakistan is in an execution arms race with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq.

It is too late to save Shafqat Hussain. And it is too late for his poor family to be spared the pain of burying their son. But there are more than 8000 people sitting in death’s waiting room in Pakistan, countless of whom may have been convicted as juveniles, or may be innocent. There is still time for the government to see sense and reinstate the moratorium that held until December 2014.