Dignity on Death Row: One Man Among 40,000 Awaiting Execution

    “They said it would stop, the pain, if I signed on the dotted line,” wrote Zulfiqar Ali earlier this year. “If I just admitted to partaking in drug trafficking, it would go away–the beating, the kicking, the punching, the death threats.”

    Zulfiqar Ali had spent the last 13 years of his life awaiting execution in Indonesia when he died from cancer in June at the age of 54, alone in an Indonesian hospital more than 3,000 miles away from his home in Lahore, Pakistan.

    It didn’t matter that he’d been wrongfully convicted of possessing 300 grams of heroin, that he was long denied legal assistance, coerced into confessing and torturedor that Indonesia’s president promised to grant him clemency in 2018. Ali still died convicted, after languishing for more than a decade in inhuman prison conditions.  

    Ali’s story is not exceptional. Up to 40,000 people around the world are estimated to be on death row. For many of them, their rights are violated and they await execution, sometimes for years, in a constant state of anguish, uncertainty and physical and psychological suffering; UN bodies recognize such conditions as a form of inhumane treatment, if not torture.

    Many prisoners endure particularly cruel forms of physical and psychological violence: from sexual abuse, to confinement in dark rooms, to being kept next to the gallows so that they can hear executions taking place.

    The death penalty is not only cruel and barbaric–it is also illegal under international law when imposed for non-violent crimes, such as drug-law violations. Yet a significant number of individuals on death row worldwide are convicted–sometimes wrongfully–of drug-related crimes.

    According to our latest research, at least 45 per cent of death-row prisoners in Indonesia, for example–a country with severe prison overcrowding–are awaiting execution for drug crimes. The numbers were 75 individuals out of 165 facing execution in 2017.

    A similar proportion has been reported for Thailand, while it’s as high as 60 percent in Malaysia (although welcome breaking news suggests that Malaysia is now poised to abolish the death penalty).

    In recent years, there has been significant progress on this issue. Several countries have adopted positive judicial reforms, and the number of reported annual executions for drug crimes has decreased by over 90 percent from 2015 to the first nine months of 2018.

    But the core problem remains. Courts around the world continue to hand down death sentences to mostly low-level couriers for drug possession, trafficking and smuggling. Hundreds of people in this category remain on death row today. Unless there is total abolition of the death penalty, their execution remains a possibility at any time; any change in government, policy, or public opinion may immediately trigger their deaths.

    The World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10, organized every year by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP)–of which Harm Reduction International is a member–is a chance to push back against capital punishment.

    This year’s theme is to shed light on the cruel and inhuman conditions that many endure on death row, and the impact this has on prisoners, their families and even their lawyers. In many countries, death rows are found in severely overcrowded and understaffed prisons with notoriously poor sanitary conditions. In other cases, people awaiting execution are kept in solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, denied essential medicines, or even shackled or kept in cages.

    Many prisoners endure particularly cruel forms of physical and psychological violence: from sexual abuse, to confinement in dark rooms, to being kept next to the gallows so that they can hear executions taking place. It is not rare for people only to be informed of their imminent execution at the last minute.

    Human beings, no matter the crime or the sentence, never lose their fundamental rights and should never lose their dignity when they are in prison. The world is thankfully trending toward abolition of the death penalty, but until it is achieved in every country, the abuses and violations will continue.


    To find out more about this year’s World Day against the Death Penalty and to find local initiatives, visit the World Coalition’s website.

    To learn more about Zulfiqar Ali’s case, see here.

    • Giada is a human rights analyst for Harm Reduction International.

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