Death sentence for independence

Pakistan is about to execute a Briton on flimsy charges. Its president is under pressure to confirm

Mirza Tahir Hussain is scheduled to be executed in Pakistan in early October. Tahir is from Leeds, where he served with the Territorial Army, in the 3rd Battalion of the Yorkshire Volunteers. He was only 18 years old when he travelled to Pakistan, on 16 December 1988, to spend the holidays with relatives. After a night with his aunt in Karachi, he went to Rawalpindi, where he hired Jamshed Khan's taxi to take him to the Hussain family village in Chakwal District.

According to Tahir, during the journey Khan stopped the car and tried to assault him. Khan pulled a pistol, and in the struggle it went off and a bullet hit the driver, who ultimately died of his wounds. Tahir drove the taxi to the first police station he could find. There were no eyewitnesses to dispute his version of events, and he had no criminal record.

Tahir is now 36, and he has spent almost half his life in detention in Pakistan. The path has been rough and tortuous: his initial conviction was reversed because he had not been permitted to present his defence. At the second trial, he was sentenced to life imprisonment, but on 20 May 1996, the appeal judges ordered him acquitted of murder for lack of evidence.

Tahir reports that at this point, the victim's uncle visited him in jail, promising that the case was not over: "We are a powerful tribe. We can change the verdicts of the court at will." Obviously the defence allegations of assault, with possible sexual overtones, were embarrassing to Khan's memory, which would be better served if Tahir were convicted for being a cold-blooded killer.

The uncle's threat had substance. Tahir's conviction for illegal possession of the taxi had not yet been dismissed, and somehow an appeal went to a sharia court, even though this was a common-law case. On 29 August 1998, two judges sentenced Tahir to death.

The dissenting judge argued that Tahir had already been acquitted, and that the police had been "guilty of padding and introducing false witnesses" against him. Both blood and ballistics evidence appeared to have been falsified. The prosecution's suggestion that a teenager from affluent Britain had brought a gun on a plane all the way from home to rob a poor taxi driver seemed improbable at best.

Still the case has dragged on. Khan's family appeared before a Pakistani court on 1 August 2006, and refused to agree to mercy. "Our family wants justice and it has been waiting for 18 years for it. We will never compromise," said Imran Khan, a cousin.

Monopoly on injustice?

This is no place for patronising descriptions of "barbaric justice" in a "third-world" nation. The west does not have a monopoly on justice or injustice. In the past, when there has been a story about a British citizen about to be executed in a foreign land, it has usually been in the United States. Elected American judges, swayed by politics, have failed to ensure justice for eight British prisoners I have tried to help there. I watched one, Nicky Ingram, die in the electric chair in 1995.

But next month it will be another ally in the war on terror that may execute an innocent Briton. The decision to go forward lies entirely with Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. He has the power to commute the sentence, but politics may stand in the way of justice.

Musharraf finds himself in a predicament. Next year, Pakistan will celebrate 60 years of independence. The president has suffered severe domestic criticism for his lack of independence, and he does not want to be seen to bow to the British now.

Yet it would be perverse if Musharraf were to sanction Tahir's execution purely to counteract perceptions in Pakistan of his links with President Bush and Prime Minister Blair.

Simply put, it is in Pakistan's interest not to put this man to death. Musharraf should not spare Tahir as a favour to Britain. As the alternative is to execute a man who is probably innocent, he should do it because it is the right thing to do - for Tahir, for justice, and for Pakistan.

Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights abuses. He represents 36 of the prisoners in Guantanamo. He writes this column monthly.
Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640
www.reprieve.org.uk