By Zainab Z. Malik
The protections available to overseas Pakistanis in host countries depend largely on the efforts of Pakistan’s foreign service. This is especially true for Pakistani nationals from impoverished backgrounds who are forced to travel abroad to seek employment in order to provide for their families back home.
As a result of their desperation, these migrants are easy targets for organised trafficking networks that claim to provide safe passage and employment in exchange for exorbitant fees. It is not uncommon for these trafficking networks to use migrants as carriers of narcotics, often to countries carrying harsh punishments for drug possession, including death penalty.
Once apprehended, the migrants are abandoned to the mercy of a foreign criminal justice system, usually without independent translators and legal assistance. In December 2014, the families of 10 Pakistanis who were facing execution in Saudi Arabia for drug charges approached the Lahore High Court (LHC), alleging that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) had failed to make any meaningful effort to provide consular assistance or legal support to the detainees, as required under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR). The 10 prisoners had been allegedly coerced by Overseas Employment Promoters (OEP), licensed by the Government of Pakistan, into travelling to Saudi Arabia under false pretences of gainful employment.
Prior to boarding the aircraft, the prisoners, it’s claimed, were tortured with severe beatings and were forced to ingest heroin capsules.
The petition, filed by the families, reads: “[T]he OEP agent injected [one of the 10 Pakistanis] with something that put him in a semi-conscious state. It was in this state that [he] was forced to swallow heroin capsules. He was then taken to the Islamabad airport where he was made to board the flight to Saudi Arabia.”
In another instance:”[W]hen [another of the 10 Pakistanis] was ready to leave for Saudi Arabia through the OEP agent in Islamabad, he was kidnapped and taken to an unknow [sic] location. He was locked up for two days, beaten, threatened, held at gun point [sic] and forced to ingest drugs into his body. He was made to board a flight to Jeddah.”
The families claimed that despite repeated pleas to the Pakistani embassies in Jeddah and Riyadh, no contact was made by any member of embassy staff or official with either the prisoners or the family. The prisoners were charged and convicted in Arabic without legal counsel or independent translators, and without the knowledge of their families. Four of the 10 have been executed, and their bodies never returned to their families. One of the deceased’s mother “does not believe that her son is dead and the ongoing trauma of not knowing the fate of her son has caused her to become severely mentally disturbed,” the petition states.
In response to the government’s blatant disregard for the lives of its citizens, the LHC ordered MOFA to formulate a policy detailing how consular protection and support will be provided to overseas Pakistanis imprisoned in other countries, who currently total over 9,000. However, despite the LHC’s orders, no such policy has been drafted, and since the petition was filed, over 45 Pakistanis have been executed in Saudi Arabia, including the four petitioners.
Following the Gulf countries, Iran emerges as the top destination for human and drug traffickers from Pakistan. A large number of Pakistanis have found themselves coerced into acting as drug mules across the border between Iran and Baluchistan.
In July 2017, four Pakistanis were executed in Iran after the authorities claimed that drugs were discovered in the truck that they were travelling in. This included a 10-year-old boy, whose only crime was to be in the truck at the time the drugs were discovered.
In the same month, another Pakistani national, who had been arrested at the age of 13 on similar charges, was executed following eight years in a Zahedan prison. There can be no greater violation of the VCCR and Pakistan’s own constitutional obligations than to stand by silently and allow the repeated executions of its children in foreign countries.
Additionally, there are currently over 189 Pakistanis imprisoned in Iran, a significant majority of who form part of the 5,300 prisoners of Iran’s death row for drug-related crimes. With over 567 executions in Iran in 2017 alone for drug crimes, these Pakistanis face imminent executions. As a result of mounting international pressure, the government of Iran has finally realised that the death penalty has not served as a deterrent to drug trafficking, and has been predominantly applied against low-level drug carriers rather than drug cartels.
Therefore, the country has enacted a law that severely limits its application by raising the minimum standard meriting a death sentence from 30 grams to two kilos for hard drugs and from five to 50 kilos for synthetic drugs. The law also provides that all those who have been awarded death sentences under the old law are entitled to the commutation of their death sentences to imprisonment and fine. Moreover, the government of Pakistan now has an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to its nationals by making forceful representations to the government of Iran to convert the death sentences of their nationals, as they are entitled under the new law.
It is the government of Pakistan’s responsibility to ensure that its nationals are provided with adequate legal representation and access to a fair trial as they apply for the conversion of their death sentences. Foreign services and embassies all over the world have established procedures in place that provide protection to their citizens who come into conflict with the law in other countries.
This is especially true for countries that export large numbers of migrant workers such as Philippines, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, all of whom have taken forceful stances against host countries attempting to execute their nationals.
The government of Pakistan, especially its foreign service, must end its tolerance towards the abuses faced by its citizens in prisons all over the world. The legislative developments in Iran serve as the ideal starting point for the Pakistan government in moving towards finally joining the ranks of states that are recognised for defending the rights of their citizens under all circumstances. Only then can Pakistani nationals hope to be protected abroad.
(Zainab Z. Malik is a human rights lawyer, currently working with the Justice Project Pakistan. She has law degrees from the Lahore University of Management Sciences and Harvard Law School. She tweets @ZainabQ)