It is an election year. You would think that the government would be all over an easy win.
Zulfiqar Ali offered that. An innocent Pakistani citizen languishing on Indonesia’s death row on false drug charges needed saving. An Indonesian government inquiry concluded that he was innocent in 2010. After that, by any standard, he had no business being incarcerated let alone staying at risk of execution.
This was a diplomatic tour de force waiting to happen.
Bringing him home would be Pakistan showing the world the high value it places on the lives of its citizens, that no one could take away their right to a fair trial without consequences. It would have exemplified Pakistan’s diplomatic prowess. The government would have come across as assertive, responsible, sympathetic — everything you want to be seen as to get votes.
It wasn’t particularly difficult to do. The bulk of the work had been done. Were there enough eyes on the case? Yes. When Indonesia issued his execution warrants in July 2016, a relentless media campaign took root, invigorated by the outrage of Pakistan’s citizenry.
The noise was deafening and the right phone calls were made to Indonesia. Zulfiqar’s life was spared at the last moment, a feat that the governments of the other foreign nationals executed that night were unable to achieve.
He called me then, giddy. He said he had never felt more proud to be a Pakistani.
Was there a reasonable chance of success? Absolutely. President Joko Widodo had scheduled a trip to Pakistan in January 2018. We pounced and the campaign became too loud to ignore, including the voices of the then speaker of the National Assembly and the parliamentarian Shazia Marri.
On the day of President Widodo’s arrival, the then foreign minister tweeted that Zulfiqar’s case would be raised and made good on that promise. President Widodo promised to re-examine the case on humanitarian grounds. The intention had already been stated. It just had to be followed up — forcefully.
Was there any risk? No. Zulfiqar’s innocence had been confirmed by a fact-finding inquiry instituted by the former president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. It had found conclusive signs of human rights abuses at every stage of his case, publicly confirmed by Hafid Abbas, a member of the inquiry team who authored the report.
And now he had terminal stage four liver cancer. He was a deeply unwell man — no threat to anyone.
The photo-op of Zulfiqar taking a flight back to Pakistan, with its leadership waiting at the tarmac would have played well. So well, we might have forgiven them for their indifference to his wrongful conviction for 14 years.
Fourteen years is a long time. When Zulfiqar was arrested, the president of Pakistan was Gen Musharraf, Facebook had just been created and Saddam Hussein was still on trial.
And yesterday, Zulfiqar died — innocent in truth, but still a convict by law.
Why did this happen? Was it incompetence? Or worse still, indifference? Bureaucracy? Could it have been avoided at all?
Zulfiqar’s suffering on death row, culminating in his demise demonstrates the dangers of not having a consular protection policy. Without a clear set of protocols, that consular staff should be trained and obligated to follow, it is no surprise that Zulfiqar’s innocence was ignored for eight years, and his incarceration for 14.
When Zulfiqar was arrested, no one from the Pakistan embassy visited him. If they had, what they would have found would have astounded them. And what they saw, I have to believe, would have inspired action.
For three days after his arrest, he was kicked, punched and threatened with death by the police to obtain the only piece of evidence against him: a self-incriminating torture-induced confession. The police have never found any material proof of his involvement.
He never recovered from the stomach and kidney injuries he suffered, despite emergency surgeries that, in a cruel twist, he had to pay for.
In Asma Shafi v. The Federation, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah repeatedly called on the foreign affairs ministry to present a consular policy. After years of litigation, the only thing the representatives from the ministry could produce was a set of guidelines. Guidelines that they were forced to create under orders from the Supreme Court in 2010, and that no one seems to follow.
The fact that after over 70 years of existence, the ministry is yet to devise a consular protection policy can only be a mark of cruel indifference. There are 9,360 Pakistanis in jails worldwide. Many of them are cases just like his.
Make no mistake, Zulfiqar dying the way he did is on the ministry of foreign affairs. They had the time, resources and the public support to take action. It was a win-win.
But if there’s no consular policy, the citizens of Pakistan can only lose.
The writer is head of communications for Justice Project Pakistan. Twitter: @Rimmel_Mohydin