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Shafqat Hussain's execution halted after massive social media campaign

Pakistan's Shafqat Hussain was to be put to death on March 19 for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 14. But an aggressive social media campaign saved his life barely hours before the execution.

Rights activists in Pakistan rejoiced as death row convict Shafqat Hussain's execution was suspended following a government order. Local newspaper Express Tribune tweeted the story:

Activists congratulated each other for the worldwide social media campaign which pressured the government into halting Shafqat's execution.

Users in social media discussed possible methods of trying to halt the convict's execution. Shafqat Hussain is thought to be around 24 years old now and has spent the last ten years in prison after being convicted of kidnapping and involuntary manslaughter under Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act 2004. He was scheduled to be executed on March 19, despite all efforts to suspend his death sentence.

"Shafqat was from a very poor family (parents pictured above) in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir," says political commentator and activist Marvi Sirmed, who has been following the case closely in Pakistan. The boy ran away from home to Karachi, Pakistan's commercial hub, and began doing odd jobs in several places. It was here that he met a family and occasionally took care of their children when the parents were away, Sirmed says.

Unfair trial

Trouble began when one of the children went missing and police arrested the young boy, suspecting him of kidnapping the family's child, even though "the family, during the trial, repeatedly said that Shafqat was very kind to their children," Sirmed said.

"Police took him into their custody illegally, they beat him, they tortured him brutally, burned him with cigarette stubs and electrocuted his private parts," the activist said. "This child then said in court that he confessed after being so brutally tortured."

The death row convict, 14 years old at the time, did not have a proper legal counsel and his parents were unable to afford one. "Shafqat Hussain's current lawyers claim that he did not receive a fair trial," rights group Amnesty International wrote in its petition calling for action to stop Shafqat's execution. "The state-appointed lawyer failed to introduce a single piece of evidence or call a single witness in his defense and never raised the fact that he was a juvenile at the time of the offense."

According to Amnesty, the boy's execution would be illegal under both domestic and international law. "Under Pakistan's Juvenile Systems Ordinance, from 2000, a juvenile cannot be sentenced to death," the organization wrote in a statement. International law also prohibits the death penalty for people under 18.

Ambiguous anti-terror laws

In Hussain's case, Pakistan's Anti-Terrorism Act has proved fateful. "In those days, around 2002 to 2004, cases of kidnapping for ransom were tried under anti-terror laws," Sirmed says. In 2006, Pakistan's government decided to suspend the death penalty and until earlier this year, convicts on death row were not executed.

However, last December's terror attacks on a Peshawar school, in which jihadists gunned down more than 150 children, changed everything. The government under Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif decided earlier this year that it would withdraw the suspension on death sentences in terrorism-related cases, meaning that convicts could be executed almost immediately.

Soon after, rights activists clamored for justice for Hussain, prompting the government to halt the execution and announce an investigation into the allegations. However, Interior Minister Nisar Khan recently announced that all legal procedures had been completed and the convict could be hanged. After the government's statement, there appeared to be nothing more activists could do.

Shafqat Hussain's case is one of "thousands of such cases," Sirmed says, adding that Pakistan's judicial system and its juvenile laws need an overhaul.

While talking to DW on Wednesday, Shafqat's execution seemed a certainty. But Marvi Sirmed hoped the death sentence would be suspended. "It is never too late," Sirmed said. Her wish came true.

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