Pakistan’s Death Row Dilemma

by Shantha Rau Barriga Director of the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch. 28.08.2015

Abdul Basit, a 43-year-old prisoner paralyzed from the waist down after developing tuberculosis in prison in 2010, will likely go to the gallows in his wheelchair in the next few days. Basit is the latest person with a disability on death row whose life is at risk since the Pakistani government began its execution spree this year. Basit joins Kaneezan Bibi, who has a psychosocial disability, and Khizar Hayat, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia in 2008, as among those facing Pakistan’s state executioners.

Basit’s execution was set for July 29, and requests to have him transferred to a medical facility were refused. On July 29, however, the Lahore High Court stayed his execution to allow for a new assessment of his medical situation. On August 31, the court will decide whether the execution will go ahead.

Rather than confronting the inherent cruelty and injustice of capital punishment, Pakistani officials are puzzling over how to hang a man in a wheelchair. To save their client’s life, Basit’s lawyers are now arguing macabre technicalities, including that a prisoner in a wheelchair can’t meet the prison’s requirement that the condemned “mount” the scaffold and “stand” beneath the noose. They are also concerned about the ability to accurately measure the length of rope required for his hanging, which could lead to decapitation.  

The Pakistani government has executed 209 people this year. These executions are part of the government’s response to last December’s horrific attack by the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Tehreek-e-Taliban on a school in Peshawar that left at least 148 dead – almost all of them children.

A group of independent United Nations experts has called on the Pakistani government to halt all executions and commute the sentences of those on death row. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel punishment. The sorry spectacle of executing a person with a severe disability merely highlights this cruelty.

Pakistan’s government should reverse its decision to lift its death penalty moratorium and move toward abolition. Only then will Pakistan’s death row dilemma come to an end.

Shantha Rau Barriga is director of the disability rights division at Human Rights Watch. She leads research and advocacy on human rights abuses against persons with disabilities worldwide, including in China, Croatia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Peru, Russia, Uganda, the United States and Zambia. She has worked on a range of issues including: the shackling of people with psychosocial disabilities, denial of education for children with disabilities, violence against women and girls with disabilities, institutionalization of children and adults with disabilities, and the neglect of people with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies. 

Shantha Rau Barriga was a member of the UNICEF Advisory Board for the 2013 State of the World’s Children report and the WHO expert group on violence against children with disabilities in institutional settings. She is also a member of the International Network of Women with Disabilities. 

Before joining Human Rights Watch, Shantha Rau Barriga participated in the negotiations toward the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Shantha received degrees from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and the University of Michigan, and was a Fulbright Scholar to Austria. She speaks German and Kannada, an Indian language.

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