“The prison hangman loitered in a Lahore graveyard…” sounds like the beginning to a great novel. Rather, it’s the first line of the New York Times feature on Pakistani hangman Sabir Masih, who has been idle since Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari declared a 2008 moratorium on capital punishment. Masih is featured in a couple of interviews since 2011, so at least there’s that…
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif recently announced an investigation into the moratorium, which his adviser, Sartaj Aziz, says is, “not legal.” Zardari will be out of the President’s office on Sunday and will be unable to combat the review, though he has said he will maintain his position against capital punishment for the remainder of his time in office. The Pakistani military also generally supports capital punishment.
Possible reinstatement of the death penalty has drawn out an odd collection of groups in opposition, namely human rights activists and the Taliban.
Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists—who fear the spotted history of Pakistani trials when it comes to convicting guilty and innocent alike—penned a joint letter to Sharif speaking against capital punishment, saying it represents, “a major step back for human rights in the country.” A warning from a European Union trade delegation official, Ana Gomes, closely mimicked the letter, saying Pakistan’s trade future would suffer, “a major setback,” if hangings resumed.
On the other side of the spectrum—though favoring a continued stay for all executions—a Taliban commander in mid-August threatened attacks on Sharif supporters if they moved forward with executing imprisoned jihadists.
Meanwhile, Masih, whose career has racked-up about 200 executions over three years, still reports to work at the Kot Lakhpat prison bordering Lahore. He receives a monthly salary of $120 but he reveals that the majority of his day is spent drinking and smoking at the graveyard with fellow Christians (and out of sight of Muslims, who are restricted from alcohol use).
Some rumors indicate that incoming president, Mamnoon Hussain, may be in favor of extending the ban. Zardari was unable to completely prevent all executions in the last years but he had the power to prevent the majority.
Lamenting the lack of work, Masih says, “My job requires courage… because one moment a person is alive, the next he is gone.” Masih is practical about possibly resuming his duties. He calculates that if the hangings are loosed, “I might have to hang three or four in a day.” He sets his record in one day at six hangings.
Pre-moratorium, Pakistan’s predilection to hangings kept men like Masih plenty busy in comparison to other nations. Up to 27 violations from blasphemy to computer crimes are hanging-offenses and at last count by Amnesty International (excluding China numbers, which probably outrank Pakistan), 8,000 Pakistanis on death row account for about one-third of those serving death sentences worldwide.
Masih has admitted to finding executions difficult initially but he, “learned not to think about it.” He said, “I believe in the Bible and it teaches us, just like the Qu’ran, that it is an eye for an eye. People convicted for murder do not deserve to live, unless the aggrieved party pardons them.”
Masih explains that it is not his job to judge those he hangs, “I just follow orders.” About his customers, Masih says that some cry and most pray. The Lahore hangman revealed some of the science of his work during his interviews, explaining rope measurements, weighing inmates and typical dialogue as the convicted approach the noose.
Note: Video contains some comments of a sensitive nature. Not for all audiences.
Masih, now 29, shared early memories of accompanying his father to the gallows with interviewers back in 2011. The hereditary occupation has been a part of the family since the British ruled the region, involving his father and grandfather. The work is not just in Masih’s immediate family line; his cousin travels around Punjab to perform executions since not many will do the job, and he boasts that the brother of his grandfather was, “the famous executioner of Bhutto.”
Passing the executioner's craft from father to son is common throughout history as the position is not often coveted. The Sanson family of Paris carried the profession through multiple generations back to the 1600's. At the height of the French Revolution, Reign of Terror period, Charles-Henri Sanson along with his son and assistants employed the guillotine to execute up to 50 victims a day. Sanson’s memoirs reflect a pragmatic but compassionate practitioner who also considered judgment outside of his jurisdiction.[Image and Video via YouTube.]