Sat, Oct 21, 2006 - Page 5 News List

Feature: UK citizen realistic about Pakistani death sentence

UNCONVINCED A judge presiding in the Islamic trial said police `fabricated evidence' to see Mirza Tahir Hussein, who had no criminal record, convicted

AP , ADIALA JAIL, PAKISTAN

On Thursday, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf granted a stay of execution to British death row inmate Mirza Tahir Hussain -- his fourth -- until Dec. 31.

Hussain has been in Pakistani prisons for 18 years for a killing he maintains he is innocent of.

But despite his pleas for a pardon -- and those of his relatives, human rights groups and British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- he is realistic about his limited options.

He told reporters on Thursday in a rare interview at the notorious Adiala Prison in Rawalpindi that prayer and his deep faith in Islam have helped prepare him for either of two scenarios: release, or death by hanging.

"I hope for the best and try to be ready for the worst, and leave everything to Allah," said 36-year-old Hussain.

Hussain was 18 when he traveled to his ancestral home of Pakistan for the first time in 1988, taking a break, he said, from a stint in the British territorial army, the UK's military reserve. He planned to visit relatives in the Punjab province town of Chakwal, south of Islamabad.

On the day he arrived, Hussain was picked up by taxi driver Jamshed Khan, who the Briton said pulled out a gun and tried to sexually assault him. During an ensuing struggle, the driver was fatally shot. Hussain drove the cab and the body to a nearby police station, where he was arrested.

During subsequent trials, Hussain was convicted and sentenced to death in 1989 for murder, then acquitted in 1996 by a higher court.

However, an Islamic or Shariah court later convicted him in a split 2-1 verdict of armed robbery, and in 1998 issued a death penalty, which by law should be carried out unless the victim's family chooses to pardon him.

The dissenting judge described Hussain as "an innocent, raw youth not knowing the mischief and filth in which the police of this country is engrossed."

Police introduced false wit-nesses and "fabricated evidence in a shameless manner" against Hussein, who had no criminal record, the judge said.

"It wasn't pre-planned. It happened suddenly. A scuffle took place. It could have been me that was shot," said Hussain, wearing a red-and-white head scarf and crisp, white shalwar kameez tunic. "I feel very sorry for whatever happened, and regret it and pray for the family of the deceased and the victim also. I grieve as they do."

Death row at Adiala Jail comprises five or six quadrangle buildings with a courtyard in the middle of each, into which prisoners like Hussain are allowed to leave the tiny, barred cells to walk in for two hours daily. Hussain said he spends his days reading the Quran and other books, writing, talking with cellmates and exercising.

Local and international human rights groups have condemned the case against Hussain as a miscarriage of justice.

Zachary Katznelson, senior counselor of the NGO Reprieve, a London-based anti-death penalty group, met with Hussain earlier this month. He said 18 years in jail was long enough for someone convicted in a flawed trial based on suspect evidence.

"He has now done 18 years in prison, and even if he was guilty, which based on the evidence presented I doubt he was, surely that must be enough time," Katznelson said. "And this constant setting of an execution date followed by a stay is an emotional yo-yo for him, which is agonizing for both Tahir and his family in the UK"

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