Trading justice for money: Prisoners on Pakistan's death row can pay off their victims' families in exchange for freedom

Introduced in 1990, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinances enshrined in law the practice of blood money. This includes the right for the victim's next of kin to pardon those on death row 'for the sake of God' and for financial compensation in lieu of eye-for-an-eye punishment

Elliott Goat
Saturday 10 January 2015 01:00 GMT
Sylvia Henry Pershaad and her son Arif at home in Lahore. Syvlia's youngest son, Ubeid, has been on death row for nine years
Sylvia Henry Pershaad and her son Arif at home in Lahore. Syvlia's youngest son, Ubeid, has been on death row for nine years (Anna Huix)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Sylvia Pershaad sits waiting for her son to die. On the first Monday of each month, she gathers what little belongings she has and makes her way from her tiny apartment on the outskirts of Lahore to visit her son on death row.

Although the prison is only 10 miles away, it takes her four hours to make the journey, a journey so expensive she can only afford to make it once every four weeks. Her son, Ubeid, was only 16 when he was convicted as an accomplice in the brutal stabbing of a woman and her two sons. He has remained on death row, pending appeal, for 12 years. His situation is bleak.

Death row cells, measuring no bigger than 10ft x 8ft, are occupied by, on average, eight to 10 prisoners. Legally it is meant to be one inmate per cell. While wealthy prisoners can bribe guards for a larger cell, amenities and more time outside, the average prisoner is allowed outside only twice a day, for 40 minutes in the morning and evening. The lack of space means inmates are forced to sleep in shifts, head to toe.

Standing at the centre of the prison, set among the manicured lawns and tended gardens – surrounded by the daily cycle of chaos, corruption and abuse – sit the gallows. Above the scaffold is a prayer for the dead written in Urdu and a message which reads, 'We don't hate the criminal, we hate the crime!'. On their journey from cell to noose, this is the last thing a prisoner will see before they are hooded for execution.

"There is a stillness," described a former inmate, "in a prison of 5,000 people, around the gallows you can feel death, you can hear it, it is heavy around the air."

Following December's Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar which left 162 people, including 132 children, dead, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted the country's six-year moratorium on executions. While supposedly only applying to terrorism-related cases, there are fears from human rights organisations and the international community that this precedent will be used by the government to try non-terrorism-related offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act. As it stands, each sentence is now assessed on a case by case basis, with the next execution just one executive order away.

In September, days before the original moratorium was due to expire, inmates were subjected to a very public show of psychological baiting. In full view of the prisoners, the guards responsible for executions began to ceremonially clean and paint the gallows which had lain covered and unused for more than half a decade. The effect was to send the death row inmates into a state of delirium, forcing the prison into a three-day lockdown.

While, as a signatory to the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) and reliant on international aid (£446m from Britain this year alone), the government is under pressure to extend the moratorium, the spectre of death at any moment hangs permanently over the prisoners.

Sabir Anokha falsely confessed to murder on his brother's behalf to protect his sibling's family. He was subsequently sentenced to death. He describes his daily torment: "When a person is sent to a death row cell he is hanged on a daily basis. Every day he is hanged, every day he dies and every day he comes back to life... this is a very long and brutal punishment."

Ilyas Khokar with his father and mother-in-law. Khokar's murder conviction was pardoned by his victim's family
Ilyas Khokar with his father and mother-in-law. Khokar's murder conviction was pardoned by his victim's family (Anna Huix)

In 2008, when the moratorium was introduced, Pakistan had ranked fifth in the world for state executions (averaging between 250 to 350 a year). With death sentencing currently at a record high, over the past six years the number of prisoners 'awaiting execution' on death row has risen to over 8,500 – the highest in the world. The exact figure is not known.

With a corrupt police force and an intransigent and inefficient judicial system, the only thing saving Sylvia's son Ubeid from the gallows is the temporary stay of execution afforded him by the government's partial moratorium.

However, with no indication as to how long this will last, and fears that the recent lifting for terrorism- related offences will affect other death penalty cases, there is only one avenue left open to Sylvia to save her son: the possibility of a blood money pardon.

Introduced in 1990, as part of a wider Islamification of the Pakistan Penal Code, the Qisas and Diyat Ordinances enshrined in law the practice of blood money. This included the right for the victim's next of kin to pardon those on death row 'for the sake of God' and for financial compensation (blood money 'diyya') in lieu of eye-for-an-eye punishment (Qisas).

Traditionally valued in terms of livestock, gold or silver, today the price of diyya is set according to the current market value of 30.63kg of silver (roughly £34,000). In reality, the exact amount paid varies considerably from case to case depending on the relative economic circumstances of the families involved.

Sarah Belal, co-founder and lead partner in Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a pro bono legal firm specialising in cases of death row and torture, cites the case of Zulfiqar Ali Khan to demonstrate the differing motivations which drive families to forgive in exchange for blood money.

Zulfiqar, whose newspaper plea inspired Belal to start JPP six years ago, was convicted, along with his brother Khursheed, of murdering two men in a roadside argument in 1997.

"Here you have two victims and two separate families from different backgrounds," describes Belal.

"One family is economically strong and socially powerful within their community, while the other is very poor. That money to the widow of the second victim and her children is essential in order to afford them independence, ensure their survival and secure the children some form of inheritance."

For the economically strong family, their willingness to forgive is not driven by financial incentive, but by a desire to fund the construction of a mosque. They do not need nor want the stigma of having accepted blood money.

"Even after 16 years," states Belal, "the murder and its effect within the community is such a sensitive issue that they don't want people to think that they have taken blood money and, in effect, sold the murder of their son."

A panchaat ('bench of elders') in the town of Chichawatni. The panchaat act as negotiators between victims and perpetrators
A panchaat ('bench of elders') in the town of Chichawatni. The panchaat act as negotiators between victims and perpetrators (Anna Huix)

Over the intervening 16 years, Zulifiqar has had his date of execution set three times, only for the judge to grant a stay in the final few minutes before the sentence was to be carried out. For his father, this ordeal, combined with the pressure of having to raise the £34,000 needed for his son's diyya, has slowly driven him towards a mental breakdown.

While cases settled by diyya remain relatively low (around 200 to 300 a year) the attention they receive both within Pakistan and internationally remain disproportionately high.

In recent years, the practice of blood money has been pushed into the spotlight by a series of highly publicised cases. In 2011, CIA contractor Raymond Davis was convicted of murdering two Pakistani civilians but pardoned amid widespread protest following a reported payment of $2.3m. In June 2013, Shahrukh Jatoi, a member of one of Pakistan's wealthiest and most powerful families, was sentenced to death for murder – only to be released following a blood money settlement. In June this year, the bludgeoning of Farzana Parveen outside the High Court in Lahore was condemned as the latest example of an 'honour killing' involving blood money.

However, despite increasing criticism over the way in which blood money is being manipulated by wealthy families, over 70 per cent of the population support the Qisas and Diyat laws and while they receive the greatest publicity and attention, cases involving wealthy perpetrators represent the extreme exception.

Through a combination of duress, political connections and access to the best legal representation, any case involving a rich or powerful perpetrator never makes it to the trial stage. They are either thrown out, dropped by the complainant due to pressure from the police or, as in the Jatoi case, paid off.

For many in the West there remains an overwhelming ethical rejection of blood money, seeing it as a relic not in keeping with a 21st-century legal system. This is reflected by the attitude of most human rights groups who operate in Pakistan on death row cases.

Many NGOs involved in fighting the death penalty simultaneously campaign against the practice of blood money. There is unease towards a social justice system which condones a 'murder + money = freedom' equation. Whether these positions are driven by expediency, playing to their supporters' (and benefactors') preconceptions, or by an attempt to change a system which on the surface seems to benefit only the rich, in reality, aligning these two objectives is contradictory and mutually disadvantageous. For many prisoners, their only hope of avoiding the gallows lies in the reconciliation process afforded through blood money.

A street in Gulgasht Colony, Lahore, part of the route taken once a month by Sylvia Pershaad to visit her son on death row
A street in Gulgasht Colony, Lahore, part of the route taken once a month by Sylvia Pershaad to visit her son on death row (Anna Huix)

IA Rehman, Pakistan's Commissioner for Human Rights, believes that the international bias against blood money as a barbaric exchange is accentuated by a culture of fear and social rejection.

"People are generally not willing to discuss [Qisas and Diyat] because it has been wrapped in the filament of ideology and belief."

What it has served to do is to change the nature of the offence, turning serious crime into a civil action. For Rehman, "murder is a crime against society, but Qisas and Diyat has made it a private affair between the culprit and the victim's family".

The Qisas and Diyat laws are often accused of 'privatising justice' to a point where the state is increasingly removed from its responsibilities of judicial authority. According to Rehman, a lack of understanding and poor implementation has led to the law being manipulated. He gives a common example of a man who killed his own daughter and asked his son to take responsibility for the crime. The son was arrested but later pardoned by his father as the next of kin. Other such cases often involve the collusion of household servants who, through bribery or threats, act as proxies and ensure their masters never face trial.

Intimidation is often used to force many poor (or poorly connected) complainants to forgive. Similarly, there is no provision within Qisas and Diyat to prevent wealthy offenders repeatedly paying blood money and reoffending.

In most cases, the realities of poverty outweigh any moral consideration. For Ishtiaq Rasool, whose father was killed when he was just 15, the choice to forgive was a simple one of survival.

"When we talk about reconciliation and pardoning, it is very clear that Shariat allows us compensation for the care of our brothers and sisters. Since we are very poor, labourers with no land, we must do what we can to survive."

Ishitaq is quick to emphasise that he has not forgiven the murderer of his father but will pardon him purely for the sake of his family. "There is a mutual desire to save him and to save us, as well."

The blood money acts as its own form of punishment, just as the provision for financial compensation and damages functions in Western legal systems.

However, Ishitaq's father's killer, Boota Mashi, and his family can never hope to raise the necessary amount of 1 million PKR (around $9,450). With both her son and grandson (the latter for a separate crime) on death row, Boota's mother oversees a household with no recognised bread winner, relying on community hand-outs and a monthly donation from a sympathetic judge.

This financial purgatory leaves many in a legal limbo for years with no end in sight. One way out of this impasse involves the exchange practice of vennii, where daughters are offered as brides in place of money. Although not technically condoned within Qisas and Diyat, this practice is still widespread, especially in rural areas, and we learnt that such a compromise was suggested by Ishtiaq's family. At the time the girls were nine and 11, and their betrothal came with the added complication of having to convert from Christianity to Islam. Despite pressure to accept the compromise, their mother refused to sanction the marriage, leaving her only son on death row and her family fighting for its survival.

Allama Syed Ziaullah Shah Bukhari (on the right), a Muslim scholar who specialises in the implementation of Islamic law
Allama Syed Ziaullah Shah Bukhari (on the right), a Muslim scholar who specialises in the implementation of Islamic law (Anna Huix)

In 2011, a 10-year-old boy was imprisoned for shooting dead his neighbour in Yahounabad, one of the poorest suburbs of Lahore. The boy, whose name cannot be disclosed, now 13 and working as a house servant in a wealthy district of Lahore, was pardoned by the victim's daughter in order to support her two younger sisters who had been left effectively homeless. Previously, their only source of income had come from their mother who had worked as a prostitute.

When implemented correctly, Diyya, therefore, functions as a mutually beneficial transaction. Furthermore, Qisas and Diyat is seen as a means to stop the vicious cycle of retribution which plagues family disputes that drag on for generations.

Zahid Aslam Malik, the lawyer representing Sylvia's son during his appeal, echoes the view held by many in Pakistan's legal community, that the voluntary act of forgiveness "is good for society" as long as it is not done under duress.

"The murderer has been forgiven by the legal heirs, and as such by Allah. This stops the cycle of revenge between the victim's family and the family of the accused. The payment of diyya is, therefore, essential for the smooth running of society.

"But without Qisas and the threat of eye-for-eye justice the law provides incentives for the whole of society to commit such acts. This is a universal law but people do abuse it. On the basis of how it is written, the law is perfect and, if implemented as such, results in peace and harmony. Islam has given us two methods for social stability; one is Qisas, the other Diyat."

This represents stability, but stability based on the stick of retribution and carrot of reconciliation.

It is only in the very rarest of cases that retribution, be it financial or penal, is surrendered entirely for the sake of reconciliation.

Sixteen years ago, Ilyas Khokar, who works in an ice factory on the outskirts of Lahore, was sentenced to death for murder. Although Ilyas claims there were other people involved with him, he does not deny the charges. "When I was sent to prison I thought it was the end of my life. I had lost all hope."

Having been refused bail and exhausted all other legal avenues, Ilyas's father Samuel decided he would bypass the state and contact the victim's family directly.

"I would visit their shop daily," Samuel says. "I started to investigate their relatives and in this way I was able to meet and involve most of the women in their family. I would meet each relative every two or three days. I would go to their home every week. I tried to build a relationship with the complainant."

After 22 months of daily visitations, conversations and discussions, the family agreed to pardon Ilyas "for the sake of God".

"We never paid a single penny," claims Samuel. However, while no money was paid, their agreement to pardon came with one condition: that, following his release, Ilyas make the journey to the victim's family to ask for forgiveness in person.

Kursheed Ahmed Khan and his father Rasheed (seated). Kursheed's brother Zulfiqar was sentenced to death and his family were asked to raise £34,000 for his release
Kursheed Ahmed Khan and his father Rasheed (seated). Kursheed's brother Zulfiqar was sentenced to death and his family were asked to raise £34,000 for his release (Anna Huix)

Although it has been over 13 years, we track down the relatives of the victim, still working in the same flower shop in the centre of Lahore. We ask the complainant, Haji Rasheed, if he would be willing to discuss the family's motivations for pardoning Ilyas without blood money, but after agreeing a meeting he goes off-radar and all subsequent attempts to meet come to naught. No one who works or lives near the Rasheeds would acknowledge their existence or that the crime even took place. Both family and community closed ranks.

Even in cases such as Ilyas's, where the decision to pardon was not driven by financial incentive, the reaction of the victim's family reveals the social stigma still associated with blood money pardons.

Belal acknowledges that while forgiveness in and of itself remains incredibly difficult, "whether they take the money to forgive or whether they waive the money, there is a necessary process of forgiveness that has to take place".

For Muslim scholars such as Allama Syed Ziaullah Shah Bukhari, who specialise in the implementation of Islamic law, what differentiates Shariat from other secular justice systems is this provision, enshrined in the Quran, to forgive. This process of atonement, or Qyfadda, forms the central component of the Diyat Ordinances, prioritised in Islam over the supposed material motives in accepting blood money.

"What we are seeing over the past 15 or 20 years, since diyya really came to prominence within the law, is a change in cultural value. This represents a shift from pardoning as a part of a culture which has existed within communities for centuries to one based on the financial rewards afforded by diyya."

Nevertheless, for Belal, this emphasis on forgiveness positions Islamic jurisprudence as a transformative experience, "precisely because the victim's family and the perpetrator's fates are bound from not just when the crime is committed but from when the sentence is passed".

While Pakistan's endemic corruption and labyrinthine bureaucracy favours a localised panchaat system (councils made up of local politicians, religious figures and landowners) which seeks to resolve disputes for the good of both parties, the prioritisation of reconciliation over punishment has led to calls for a form of 'transformative justice' to be integrated into legal practice in Britain.

"Now they are trying this in Western judicial systems," concludes Belal, "experimenting with restorative justice, whose programmes are successful both for the defendants who have less chances of repeat offending as well as for the victims' families who achieve some sense of catharsis and closure."

Yet while the debate intensifies in Pakistan and the international community, for those who are on death row or in abject poverty, as either the perpetrator or victims of murder, blood money remains perhaps the only means of escape.

For people like Sylvia, it is the only light at the end of the tunnel.

Elliott Goat was the winner of The Independent's 2013 Wyn Harness Prize for young journalists

Death states

Until its moratorium against the death penalty began in Pakistan in 2008, it was the country with the fifth highest number of state executions. The top five now, according to Amnesty International, is:

1. China

2. Iran

3. Iraq

4. Saudi Arabia

5. North Korea

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