When Mohammad Afzal, a textile mill worker, was told that he could get better employment and also a chance to perform umrah, he jumped at the opportunity. Poor and uneducated, he had little idea what was happening and happily went off with Mohammad Arshad, a man who claimed to be an overseas employment agent.
That was the last his wife Razia saw of him, 10 years ago.
“He called after four months from Saudi Arabia, saying he was in jail on a charge of drug trafficking,” she says. Living in a simple brick house with her brother, she owns nothing of her own anymore.
“I sold everything right down to my sewing machine,” she says. “My youngest son Ramish, who was only a few months old when his father left, fell ill, and I sold all my jewelry to pay for the medical expenses but could not save him.” She runs her finger on the photo of a grinning child as if caressing his face.
Afzal’s legal documents say that after he paid Arshad money for the passport and visa, the latter took him to an unknown place in Mardan. There, Afzal was given an injection that made him drowsy, and in this state he was forced to ingest heroin capsules. Razia says that it was a heavily guarded building and he was starved for three days, and then dropped off at the airport in a car with tinted windows.
“I get all the information from Afzal when he calls, which is usually every day,” she says.
On April 24, 2009, Afzal was given the death sentence.
“Sometimes when he does not call for a few days, I start to get very uneasy. Over there, anyone can be executed any day.”
She says that Afzal told her that more people are being executed now than before.
In January alone, three Pakistanis were executed in Saudi Arabia, says Maryam Haq, the legal director of the Lahore-based Justice Project Pakistan, an organization working for Pakistanis imprisoned abroad.
Haq says that prisoners don’t have the right to an attorney unless they can afford it, which they usually cannot. Compounding the problem is the language gap. This becomes especially problematic, she explains, when “prisoners have to sign documents or when their statements in court are misinterpreted by Arabic-speaking lawyers.”
The most unfortunate part, says Haq, “is that the Pakistani government has miserably failed to protect its own citizens in another country.”
She cites the example of countries like Sri Lanka and India that have managed to free their prisoners from Saudi jails. But Pakistan, adamant at strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, doesn’t seem to be interested in its people on the death row.
Haq calls the prisoners victims of the “so-called agents of the Overseas Employment Bureau.” Poor and uneducated, she says, they have “no idea what they are doing. Some of them have never even been on a plane before. They are not criminals.”
Moreover, says Haq, the Saudi authorities arbitrarily decide which prisoners to execute and don’t provide the families of executed prisoners any official notification of the execution. Haq mentions the case of a petitioner who still does not believe that her son has been executed because she has not received any official statement, or his body.
Mohammad Amjad, an uncle of one of the prisoners executed in Saudi jails, Shahpal, says they found out through another Pakistani prisoner that Shahpal had been executed. “They did not even give us the body to bury,” he says. Amjad denies that Shahpal had anything to do with drugs, and says that they still do not know the entire story.
Ramzan, the brother of Liaquat Ali, another prisoner, relates a tale similar to Afzal’s. He says when he accompanied Liaquat to Karachi for his flight as instructed by the agents, they were suddenly told that his flight had been cancelled. “They then called Ali to Islamabad for a second flight and this time he, along with another boy, was taken to a huge building in the middle of a forest near Charsadda, drugged and starved for a few days and then forced to board the plane,” says Ramzan.
According to Ramzan, the other boy went to the bathroom at the airport and managed to escape, getting the capsules out later with the help of a doctor. “We have filed a case with the Federal Investigation Agency but they have acquitted the agent, saying he is uninvolved,” Ramzan says.
The lawyer Ali’s family hired in Saudia Arabia charged 900,000 rupees ($8,904) but nothing came of it. “We have sold almost all our land. What can we do?” Ramzan asks.
“I went to the prime minister’s office in the hope of being helped but none came my way,” says Razia. “Afzal told me a jailer was so overwhelmed by these executions he broke down crying once. He said to Afzal: ‘If your government asks for you back, you can be saved.’ But when will that happen?”
Sitting on a charpoy, she stares at the floor. While the sun is shining brightly, for this family, everything is bleak.