Duped by corrupt labor agents, more than a dozen Pakistani migrant workers seeking their fortunes in Saudi Arabia now sit on death row. They insist they were unwilling drug mules. Michelle Stockman reports from Lahore.
Abdul Haq dreads Thursdays. That's often when prisoners in Saudi Arabia are beheaded in public squares, he says.
He hopes his son, Mohammed Irfan, is not among them. Mohammed sits on death row in Al-Ha'ir Jail in Riyadh, convicted of drug smuggling nearly five years ago.
"I don't sleep the night before because I worry that my son's time may have come," Haq told DW. "I pray to God that he'll bring Mohammed home, along with all the other Pakistanis in prison with him."
In the first two months of 2015, Saudi Arabia has beheaded 33 people, at least four of whom were Pakistanis. Last year, 15 Pakistanis convicted on drug charges were among the 87 people executed in the Kingdom, according to Agence France-Presse, which tracks capital punishment there.
Hundreds of thousands of impoverished Pakistanis travel to oil-rich Gulf countries on the promise of high-paying jobs. An unlucky lot, however, say they've been forced into becoming drug mules by shady labor agents. Usually poor and uneducated, they're unprepared to defend themselves in foreign justice systems and face the gruesome consequence of beheading in countries like Saudi Arabia, which use draconian measures to crackdown on the drug trade.
No way out
Alarmed by these executions, human rights activists from the Justice Pakistan Project (JPP) filed a lawsuit against the Pakistani government in December on behalf of 20 "wrongfully convicted" Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia. They plan to add more cases from other Gulf countries.
JPP executive director Sarah Belal said Pakistan has failed to uphold the rights of migrant workers it has encouraged to seek employment abroad.
Once caught inside the Saudi justice system, Belal said "they do not stand a chance," of avoiding conviction.
Defendants must represent themselves if they cannot afford counsel. Pakistani prisoners, most of whom cannot speak or understand Arabic, say translators are part of the prosecution and often misrepresent or completely change their testimonies.
"In such an environment any sentencing is questionable," said JPP spokesman Shahab Siddiqui.
The legal saga of Haq's son began in 2010 when two overseas employment agents promised to help Mohammed obtain travel documents and a job in Saudi Arabia for a fee of 1,300 euros ($1,460), according to the petition.
Mohammed sold his rickshaw to raise the money, then travelled with the agents to another city where they "took him on a shopping spree to earn his trust," his father said.
"Then they threatened his life and those of his wife and two young daughters unless he swallowed some 'protein pills.'"
The capsules were filled with heroin, according to the petition.
His captors then "made him board a flight to Saudi Arabia under severe duress, informing him that somebody would be collecting him upon his arrival in Saudi Arabia. However, when he landed in Saudi Arabia, he was arrested by the Saudi police and subsequently sentenced to death by beheading," states the petition.
His father insists he was duped.
"He was a good, simple man who always said his prayers. He was never involved in drugs," said Haq.
Pakistan turns blind eye
JPP is calling for an embargo on laborers going to Saudi Arabia or any other Gulf Cooperation Council country until current charges against Pakistani prisoners like Irfan are investigated, their trials reviewed, and a prisoner transfer agreement signed. The petition also seeks an investigation into migrant worker recruitment practices. JPP said the Pakistani government entices workers to go abroad through manpower agencies regulated by the Bureau of Emigration and Overseas Employment.
Corrupt agents prey on a portion of their recruits, said Siddiqui. "These are the people who get their visas and are basically connected with the drug trade."
Pakistan has huge economic incentives to keep a steady supply of laborers flowing into Gulf countries. In fiscal year 2014, $4.73 billion - about 30 percent of all remittances - came from Pakistani workers in Saudi Arabia, the highest ever sum from any single country, according to the State Bank of Pakistan.
Pakistan has also received generous monetary support from Saudi Arabia, such as a $1.5 billion loan granted to Pakistan in March 2014, which local media reported was used to shore up currency reserves.
These fiscal advantages have silenced Pakistan on human rights in Saudi Arabia, said Belal.
"Essentially, the motivation for Pakistan to take Saudi Arabia on is just not there."
Indonesia and Sri Lanka have advocated on behalf of their citizens sentenced to beheading in Saudi Arabia. Indonesia paid $1.8 billion in blood money to stay the execution of a maid on death row in April 2014. Sri Lanka's president made a personal appeal for clemency for a domestic servant sentenced to die in 2013. Its embassy in Riyadh has since established a hotline for workers to report grievances.
Saudi Arabia's Ministry of the Interior currently lists 37 Pakistanis as incarcerated in its jails. But JPP estimates the real number is much higher, impossible to verify without the Pakistani government's cooperation.
Running out of time
Belal occasionally receives text messages from Pakistani prisoners typed out on secret phones passed between jail cells.
For this inmate, who Belal requested not to be identified due to the risk of execution, time is running out: "Whatever you guys are doing I hope Allah give you success, but the pace you are doing it is not enough! They are taking our Pakistani people and executing them. You have to do something big and more powerful. I request you all to do something quick, please!"