In the coming days, Pakistani security officials may wheel a paraplegic man up to the gallows. Then they may lift the 44-year-old man out of his wheelchair, slip a noose around his neck and either nudge him off a ledge or hold him while they wait for the floor to swing open.
Or they may just hang him in his wheelchair.
Either way, the prospect of the first such execution in Pakistan is renewing a months-long debate about the country’s rush to hang prisoners on death row. Since Pakistan ended a six-year moratorium in December in response to a terrorist attack on a school, it has executed more than 200 people.
But legal advocates say Pakistan has never before attempted to hang someone who uses a wheelchair. Now the case of Abdul Basit is raising fresh questions about the definition of "cruel" in Pakistan’s justice system.
In a last-ditch effort to spare his life, advocates will argue in court Tuesday that his execution would violate the country's standards for executions. According to Justice Project Pakistan, a group that opposes capital punishment, regulations for carrying out an execution assume a prisoner can walk up onto a scaffolding.
“The condemned prisoner shall mount the scaffold and shall be placed directly under the beam to which the rope is attached, the warders still holding him by the arms. The executioner shall next strap his legs tightly together, place the cap over his head and face and adjust the rope tightly round his neck the noose being 3Cm 7 Mm to the right or left of the middle line and free from the flap of the cap.
“The warders holding the condemned man's arms then withdraw and at a signal from the Superintendent, the executioner shall carry out the sentence,” the regulations in Pakistan’s Prisons Code states.
“Our main argument is that, in the jail manual, it states a person has to walk to the gallows and has to stand on the scaffolding,” said Namra Gilani, a Justice Project Pakistan case lawyer, said in an interview. “These rules don’t apply to Abdul because they have to be followed in each and every step, and that is not possible in this case.”
But the chances that a Pakistani judge will intervene in the case appear slim. Over the past six months, human rights activists and international monitors, including representatives of the European Union, have been surprised by the refusal of Pakistani courts and political leaders to step in to halt several controversial executions.
On Aug. 4, in a case that generated international outrage, Pakistani officials executed a man who is believed to have been only 14 when he was convicted of murdering a 7-year-old boy. Shafqat Hussain’s family and lawyers argued he had been tortured into making a confession, which he later recanted.
In June, Pakistani courts also refused to spare Aftab Nazir Bahadur, a 38-year-old man who swore up until his final hours that he was about to be executed for two murders that he did not commit.
Basit also maintains his innocence. After he was convicted in 2009 of murdering a then-girlfriend’s uncle, Basit developed a fever in an unsanitary Pakistani prison, according to Justice Project Pakistan. His illness quickly progressed to tubercular meningitis, which left him paralyzed from the waist down.
He’s spent much of the past four years lying in his prison cell, at times dropping to a weight of just 80 pounds, according to his legal team.
“The execution of a paraplegic prisoner, especially one who has already suffered over seven years in prison, would clearly constitute cruel and unusual punishment,” the team wrote in a one court filing.
Basit’s case is just the latest example of what human rights advocates describe as Pakistan’s rush to execute prisoners in the aftermath of the December attack on an army-run school in Peshawar, which killed about 150 students and teachers.
A day after that attack, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif vowed swift revenge and lifted the moratorium on the death penalty.
But a recent Reuters investigation concluded that fewer than one in six prisoners who have been hanged had any links to militancy.
Still, despite calls from the United Nations and European leaders that Pakistan suspend the executions, the U.S. government has remained largely silent on the matter.
That could be because the United States has its own controversial history of state-sponsored executions.
In the early 1990s, debate flared over the execution of of Charles Sylvester Stamper, a disabled man who also used a wheelchair. In the end, after months of appeals and public debate, Stamper was put to death in Virginia on Jan. 19, 1993.
Stamper took his last breath in the electric chair.