“The night is very dark”: Farewell letter by a Pakistani Christian hanged on 10 June for a crime he did not commit

Pakistan

Breaching international and Pakistani law, and despite appeals from Christian leaders and human rights groups, a Christian man convicted of murder 22 years ago at the age of 15, was hanged at 4.30 a.m. on 10 June in Pakistan’s Kot Lakhpat Jail in Lahore. In a last letter (below), Aftab Bahadur Masih describes the anguish of 22 years on death row and the added difficulties of being a Christian prisoner in Pakistan.

Aftab Bahadur Masih in 1992 and recently
Aftab Bahadur Masih in 1992 and recently

Aftab was falsely accused convicted of killing three people in 1992, convicted and sentenced to death. When he was arrested, he said, the police offered to release him if he paid them a bribe of 50,000 rupees (£500; €691; US$779); as a plumber’s apprentice, Aftab did not have the money to pay. Recently, a Muslim witness who gave evidence against Aftab admitted that he had lied under torture and that Aftab had had nothing to do with the crime. It is interesting to speculate as to why the Pakistani authorities hurried through Aftab’s execution, before his lawyers could use this new information to prove his innocence, and whether they would have done the same if the falsely accused person had been a Muslim.

In December 2014 Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium on capital punishment after a Taliban offshoot killed over 150 people in an attack on a school. The moratorium was initially lifted only for those charged with terrorism offences but on 10 March 2015 it was lifted completely. Since then, 150 people have been executed.

There are over 8,000 people on death row in Pakistan, making it the country with the highest number of inmates waiting execution in the world. The lifting of the moratorium further endangers the situation of those accused of defiling Muhammad’s name under Section 295-C of the country’s blasphemy laws. This has a mandatory death sentence, which has never yet been implemented. There are currently 14 people on death row on charges of blasphemy.

In a statement written shortly before his death, Aftab described the desperation of his wholly unjust situation:

“I just received my black warrant. It says I will be hanged by the neck until dead on Wednesday, June 10.

I am innocent, but I do not know whether that will make any difference.

During the last 22 years of my imprisonment, I have received death warrants many times. It is strange, but I cannot even tell you how many times I have been told that I am about to die.

Obviously it feels bad whenever the warrants are issued. I start to count down the days, which is in itself painful, and I find that my nerves are shackled in the same way as my body.

In truth, I die many times before my death. I suppose my life experience is different from that of most people, but I doubt there is anything more dreadful than being told that you are going to die, and then sitting in a prison cell just waiting for that moment.

For many years – since I was just 15 years old – I have been stranded between life and death. It has been a complete limbo, total uncertainty about the future.

I am a Christian, and sometimes that is difficult here. Unfortunately, there is one prisoner in particular who has tried to make our lives more difficult. I don’t know why he does it.

I got very upset over the Christian bombings that took place in Peshawar. This hurt me deeply, and I wish that Pakistani people could possess a sense of nationality that overrode their sectarianism. There is a small group of us here who are Christians, just four or five, and we are now all in one cell, which has improved my life.

I do everything I can to escape my misery. I am an art lover. I was an artist – just an ordinary one – from my early days, when I was first conscious of anything.

Even back then, I was inclined towards painting, as well as writing verses. Although I had no training, it was just a gift of God. But after I was brought to jail I had no other way to express my feelings, as I was then in a state of complete alienation and loneliness.

I began some time ago to paint all the signs for the Kot Lakhpat jail, where I am held. Then I was asked to do signs for other jails. Nothing in this world can give me more happiness than the feeling when I paint some idea, or feeling on the canvas. It is my life, so I am happy to do it. My workload is great, and I am exhausted at the end of each day, but I am glad of that, as it keeps my mind off other things.

I have no family to visit me, so when someone does come, it is a wonderful experience. It allows me to reap ideas from the outside world that I can then lay down on my canvas. Being asked about how I was tortured by the police brought back terrible memories that I turned into pictures, though it would perhaps have been better not to have to think of what the police did to try to get me to confess falsely to this crime.

When we heard the news about lifting the death penalty moratorium in December 2014, fear prevailed throughout the cells of the prison here. There was an overriding sense of horror. The atmosphere hung, gloomy, over us all. But then the executions actually started at Kot Lakhpat jail, and everyone started to go through mental torture. Those who were being hanged had been our companions for many years on this road to death, and it is only natural that their deaths left us in a state of despair.

While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say.

I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money, so I can only rely on God and on my volunteer lawyers. I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”