Put behind bars 20 years ago, Khurshid Hassan is the longest-standing prisoner today in Sahiwal Central Jail (SCJ).
Framed by his employer for a crime he says he never committed, Hassan was arrested at the age of 17 from the servant quarter of the fields he was working in at the time.
“I was an orphan, I had no support system,” he recalls, adding, “The state provided me with a lawyer who hardly ‘fought’ my case. I got into an argument with the judge the day they were supposed to deliver my verdict … he got angry and said he would make me ‘regret it’… and then he sentenced me to 50 years in prison.”
With a weary expression on his face, it is impossible to tell that Hassan is, in fact, just 37 years old.
Picked up from Okara and thrown into SCJ, the country’s largest prison, Hassan was arrested for ‘aiding his employer’s relative in an incident involving robbery and murder’.
The relative in question, Rafique Sial, mentioned as the principal accused in the verdict, was handed a death sentence. However, while Hassan continues to serve his time, Sial managed to strike a compromise with the victim’s family and escaped his death row. His second sentence, life imprisonment, was also cut short through a mercy appeal to the president.
“If I had family outside this prison, I’d be able to get out too. I am the oldest prisoner here. I’ve seen so many others come and go, but I’m stuck here,” Hassan says in a dejected tone.
Khurshid has served enough time in prison, authorities at SCJ told The Express Tribune. “If someone fights his case, I’m sure he can get out,” says Shaukat, a Warrant Officer at SCJ. “He is a victim of an unfair verdict. Normally, in cases like his, we are instructed about a concurrent jail term, meaning both sentences will pass together. Hence, if we take his time in prison into account under those standards, he should be out by now,” Shaukat adds.
Khurshid should file a petition, as precedence exists in a judgment for a similar writ petition filed in the 80s by Justice Abdul Shakoorul Salaam, former chief justice of the Lahore High Court, which clearly stated that maximum time in prison for the same offence should not exceed 25 years, which is handed down for life imprisonment, says law expert Imran Aziz.“Speedy trials mean ‘justice hurried is justice buried’. And like Hassan, others accused who have been brought to special courts for speedy trials were never given time for proper defence,” Aziz adds.
This is highlighted in the verdict where the concluding remarks by the judge state that the police conducted a flawed investigation. Hassan was sent to prison through a judicial system which was a deviation from the course of justice, a representative of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zaman Khan, told The Express Tribune. “50 years of imprisonment is just too much. On humanitarian grounds alone, Hassan should not be in jail anymore,” Khan added. Prisons should play a more reformatory role in shaping an inmate’s future. However, in Hassan’s situation, it seems like he may just die in captivity, Khan said.
Just as a police officer arrives to tell him his time for the interview is up, Hassan says, “Aren’t 20 years enough? I want to go see the world outside.”
Walking back to his cell, Hassan admits he has never had visitors. “I’ve made a lot of friends out here. Some died, others were set free. Before leaving, they all promise to come back and visit … but no one ever does.”
Published in The Express Tribune, August 29th, 2011.