Across the border

‘You never forget the sound of a body dropping into the pit’: An eye witness account of an execution

A former Pakistani prisoner describes the horrific experience of seeing one of his fellow inmates being executed.

Jails get quiet when prisoners hear an execution warrant has been issued.

Like every other jail in Pakistan, Sahiwal Central Jail was full. Of course, by full, I mean holding twice as many prisoners than it was built to support. If you put thousands of men in cages, it can get loud. I barely slept at night when I was a prisoner there for 10 years. The sounds of men snoring, crying and sometimes screaming in their sleep will keep you awake.

The exception was when we knew that one of us was heading to the gallows. We would get silence, but we would lose our sleep.

They would quietly separate the prisoner with the execution warrant from the general population of the prison. We all knew then that his time had come.

Even those of us who were not on death row would tense up. Held like animals in a pen, we would turn to the one thing that we could do: pray. We would collect in groups, praying to a higher power – because the power on the ground was not listening – to spare his life, for mercy to replace vengeance, for a miracle.

We would know that the deed had been done when the prison guard, charged with counting the prisoners every morning, would be late. On normal days, he would turn up at 5:30 am. On an execution day, he would arrive by 8:00 am. That day, none of us would speak. The televisions and radio would be silent.

Jails in Pakistan are always clean because prisoners are in charge of upkeep. They do not have much to do to while away the time. So they clean. But sometimes, they also help with carrying out the execution.

The prisoners helping out with the execution are responsible for removing the body, after it has remained suspended for 30 minutes. This is a requirement under Pakistan’s Prisons Manual. They also clean the corpse, and hand it over to the family that waits outside the prison gate with a charpai and a set of clothes. The family is also told to arrange an ambulance at their own expense.

Prisons have a graveyard where unclaimed bodies are buried. There are not that many graves there, though. Many of us have families. Demonised as we are by the rest of the world, there are still people who remember us as humans, not criminals. We do mean something to somebody.

Witnessing an execution

I was asked to witness an execution of one of my fellow inmates in 2006. Mami Pabal was a burly man, at least six feet tall with a booming voice. He had been at Sahiwal Central Jail for years and had befriended many of us. Even the prison officials liked his company. It was easy to forget that he had been accused of murder. He used to joke, “There are a lot of crimes I should be in here for – but this murder is not one of them.”

When death unnecessarily came for him, he cried like a small child.

He was escorted to the gallows. Half-carried would be more accurate. The Medical Officer, Magistrate, jail Superintendent, blacksmith, and two men from the victim’s family were there. The jail staff who were present kept reminding the victim’s family of the option to forgive Mami.

The superintendent told him to recite the kalma. I don’t think Mami heard him. He kept crying out that he had not done it, that he was innocent, that killing him would be murder, not justice. Even after they placed the hood over his face, Mami spent his last few breaths begging for his life.

There are barely any state executioners in Pakistan, despite having one of the world’s largest death rows. That day, he was not available. So instead, the jail warden pulled the lever. Before he did, he bowed his head and said, “I’m helpless Mami. I’m obligated to do this. If you can, please forgive me.”

You never forget the sound of a body being dropped into the pit. The way the beam creaks is not loud enough to drown out the choking, the sound of a bone breaking. The only dignity they give him, is that at least you cannot see his tongue lolling out of his mouth as he gasps for breath.

The power to take a life has a humbling effect on prison officials. They, too, are taken aback by what they have done. They would be less harsh with prisoners the next day. After all, they have also lost someone who they have seen day in, day out, often for years.

No job should require this much of you.

Sohail Yafat was falsely accused of murder in 2001. He spent ten years in jail before he was acquitted without any charge. Sohail narrated this story to Rimmel Mohydin, who put it in form of an article.

This article first appeared on Dawn.

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