Would we hang a 14-year-old ‘terrorist’?(DAWN)


To forget the pain of deaths past, we must do some killing of our own.

Executions are set to guide the plot of Pakistan’s latest episode of the War on Terror. Every day brings news of the numbers, 8,000 awaiting death, a few hung already, the ominous pictures of nooses plastered on the pages of newspapers.

So much hope and consensus exists around the idea of executions; their necessity, their justification, their absolute ability to curb the scourges coursing through Pakistan that one dare not argue.

There is no room to say that the problem with death by state sanction is not that the crime is not horrendous, the massacre not punishable, but that the possibility of a mistake, of killing the wrong man for the wrong crime is a taint no state can risk.

Then, there is the case of killing children themselves.

Shafqat Hussain belonged to this very category. Said to be 14 years old at the time of his conviction by an anti-terrorism court in 2004, the only evidence against Shafqat was his own confession, produced after nine days of detention in police custody.

In speaking to the human rights group Reprieve, Shafqat said that during those nine days he was kept in solitary confinement, blindfolded, beaten, electrocuted and burnt with cigarette butts.

After enduring that day after day, the boy not much older than many of the children who perished in Peshawar said that he was so broken and in such agony that he would have admitted that a “deer was an elephant” if asked to by the police.

Despite this, the Anti-Terrorism Court that heard the case against him handed down a conviction.

Also read: Not justice

After Peshawar happened and the death penalty for Pakistan’s over 8,000 death row inmates was reinstated, this past Saturday, the Ant-Terrorism Court issued a “black warrant” in Shafqat’s case and set the date for his death sentence after the Sindh High Court and President Mamnoon Hussain both rejected his mercy petition.

Shafqat Hussain was to be executed in Karachi’s Central Jail on January 14, 2015. He is now 23 years old.

Last minute rescue is not common in Pakistan, the bombs that kill hundreds always go off, the robbers always get away, the police never get there on time and despite the broken hearted lover weeping at the door, the bride always marries the wrong man.

So it nearly was in Shafqat Hussain’s case; his family had been told by the authorities at Central Jail in Karachi to get ready to meet their son for the last time.

It was then that the news came.

In response, to what were termed objections from civil society organisations who were calling attention to the errors in the case, the coerced confession and a death sentenced imposed on a boy who was still a juvenile, a stay was being granted on the execution. The Ministry of Interior would be conducting an inquiry on the boy’s case.

So, Shafqat Hussain is safe – for now.

It is like the condition of all other children, especially those from poor families, a precarious and unpredictable reprieve. If another grotesque terror attack occurs and the vengeful fires that burn in the belly of an angry nation are stoked again, it will be easy to sacrifice him to sate them.

Innocence and guilt matter little when revenge is the goal; and increasingly, in a Pakistan disinterested in the safeguards of procedures it is what rules.

With the new amendment under its belt, the Government may shove the case into the country’s newest military courts. There the poor family and the penurious advocates that represent them could try once again to point to the child’s innocence. The rules of that new venue, however, are as unknown as Shafqat Hussain’s fate.

There are many who support the death penalty in Pakistan. However, robust and dearly held their justifications may be in the case of adults, the case of Shafqat Hussain tried and tortured as a child should make them reconsider, consider more closely the architecture of victimisation that is behind them.

Even if juvenile suicide bombers are caught in the act, the mechanisms of brainwashing that are used to force them to commit such acts rely on the pliability of a child’s mind.

Even if this fact is disregarded, perhaps some other facts can convince them.

Research done at Harvard University and the University of California Los Angeles has suggested that the prefrontal cortex, the portion of the brain responsible for allowing humans to plan, anticipate consequences, control impulses, prioritise thoughts and think in the abstract, is the last part of the brain to develop.

This means that in many teenagers, the reasoning ability that would allow them to resist brainwashing is simply not yet developed. In many countries around the world, this research has been the basis of a ban on applying the death penalty to juvenile offenders even if they are rightfully convicted.

The children we could not save are already gone, their ghosts haunting the desolate playgrounds and deserted alleys of the country left behind. Sentencing even more children to death cannot honour the memory of those children nor can it bring them back.

It is after all not only the child that is killed by the suicide bomber that is the victim of a country that has lost its moral bearings; it is also the child that is the suicide bomber.

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