This week Cherwell was approached by the defence team of Zulfiqar Ali Khan. A prisoner on death row in Pakistan since 1998, the final date for his execution
has now been scheduled. Unless a stay of execution is granted, he will be hanged next Wednesday, 6th May.

Sarah Belal, his Oxford-educated defence lawyer, asked Cherwell to print an open letter to Bilawal Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Christ Church undergraduate, which follows.


Dear Mr. Chairman,

This is an appeal for clemency on behalf of Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan, a prisoner on death row in Adiala Jail, Rawalpindi, whose Stay of Execution ends on May 6 2009. We humbly request that you exercise your authority as Chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party to mobilize your party members and the President of Pakistan, Mr. Asif Ali Zardari, to commute Dr. Zulfiqar’s death sentence into life imprisonment.

Due to his poor socio-economic background, Dr. Zulfiqar was unable to afford competent legal representation and was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Notwithstanding his terrible fate, Dr. Zulfiqar has worked hard to achieve good while in prison. He has spent the 11 years since his sentence of death helping hundreds of prisoners secure an education. While conditions in the prison are very difficult – especially for someone facing execution – he has become a symbol of hope and purpose for his fellow prisoners who, under his tutelage have managed to better themselves immeasurably. In fact, in Adiala Jail he is popularly referred to as “the educator”.

Dr. Zulfiqar treasures the chance to continue his valuable
work of educating prisoners in Adiala Jail. He is not a risk to any other person and has lived a disciplined and productive life in prison. He is a skilled educator and has transformed himself to become an asset for Adiala Jail and the State.
Dr. Zulfiqar’s family has suffered too many tragedies at the hands of fate. During his imprisonment, his beloved wife was diagnosed with leukemia and died, leaving behind two young daughters. If Dr. Zulfiqar is executed, his two young daughters Fiza and Noor, aged 11 and 13 respectively, will become orphans.

The Bhutto name, and that of the Pakistan Peoples Party,
has long been associated with the notion of clemency and the Islamic principle of mercy. Your grandfather, the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the founder of the PPP, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, sought to eradicate the injustices of capital punishment throughout his life. It was a cruel twist that his own life was cut short so unjustly and violently by capital punishment.

Your mother, the late Benazir Bhutto, was the first successor of the great legacy of the PPP, and fulfilled her oath to carry on her father’s work. On her accession to power in 1988, she commuted death sentences of those who, like her father years before, were condemned to die at the hands of the State.
The tragic and unjust death of your illustrious grandfather Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, robbed the entire nation of the hope of a secular and progressive future. The death of another Zulfiqar Ali in the very same prison will snatch from the prisoners at Adiala Jail a symbol of hope, inspiration, rehabilitation and redemption.

Today you hold in your hands the possibility of helping to save the life of one man, a remarkable man who is a symbol of all that is possible to achieve in the face of adversity. Tomorrow, you will hold in those same hands the future of millions of Pakistanis who will look to you as the leader of the largest and the most progressive political party. This is your chance to illustrate to the world that the death of your grandfather and that of your mother have not been in vain, and that the Bhutto name will always stand for peace justice and mercy.
Dr. Zulfiqar has only been granted a stay of execution by the Office of the President until May 6th, 2009, whereupon he will die.

Sarah Belal
B.A (Hons), Jurisprudence, Oxford University
Sultana Noon
Center for Capital Assistance
San Francisco


The case has received wide press coverage in Pakistan, due to the constructive way in which Khan has used his time in prison to educate both himself and his fellow inmates. Numerous correspondents in the national press have spoken in favour of changing his sentence from the death penalty to life imprisonment.
A commentator in The News of Pakistan wrote that “Dr. Zulfiqar is worth more to the state alive than he is dead, and the dispensation of mercy is an act worthy of any head of state”.

Bilawal’s grandfather and founder of the PPP Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto commuted all death sentences of Pakistani prisoners to life imprisonment in the 1970s. He also raised the length of a life sentence from 14 to 25 years, with the intention of moving towards the abolition of the death penalty. Commutation of death sentences to life was also one of Benazir Bhutto’s first acts as Prime Minister in December 1988. The PPP remain committed to achieving this end. “At the very least, this government could ensure that there are no executions as long as it is in office by signing the U.N. (General Assembly) moratorium on executions,” Ali Dayan Hasan, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Pakistan commented.

When elected Prime Minister in June 2008 Yousaf Gillani publicly recommended to President Musharraf, in remembrance of Benazir Bhutto on what would have been her 55th birthday, that all death sentences should be commuted to life. This has yet to happen. Musharraf’s successor as President, Mr Asif Ali Zardari (and co-Chair of the PPP) has signalled his opposition to the death penalty, however in November 2008 he increased the number of capital crimes. The latest addition to the list of capital offences includes ‘cyber-terrorism’.

At the moment, there are 27 such crimes on the list, ranging from murder and treason to consensual sex outside marriage or sabotage of the railway network. He has also rejected all mercy petitions submitted by death row prisoners; final clemecy or commutation of sentences is a constitutional power of the office of the president.

Amnesty International reports that Khan is just one of over 7000 prisoners still on death row in Pakistan. Ansar Burney, former Pakistani Human Rights Minister and civil rights activist stated that 60 to 65 percent of death row prisoners were innocent or ‘victims of a faulty system.’ Khan was originally convicted for murder, although his defence team claim he was not actually provided with an adequate lawyer.

Earlier this month he wrote to a Pakistani newspaper; ‘I ended up in jail… due to an accidental murder. Owing to my poor financial state I could not afford a good lawyer and ended up losing my case. I devoted myself to the cause of educating prisoners… I see no future for my two daughters who are 11 and 13 and I appeal to the President to commute my capital punishment.’

Oxford University Amnesty International commented: “Following the United Nations General Assembly’s ground breaking resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty in December 2007 resolution, Yvonne Terlingen, Head of Amnesty International’s Office at the UN, said that the increased support for this resolution was very important as it “demonstrates once again that the world is on a steady path towards abolishing the death penalty”.

Unfortunately the case of Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan highlights that not all countries concur with this trend. His case shows the benefits of a rehabilitation programme and Dr. Khan should be commended for his personal progress and the great contribution he has made to others’ lives and the Pakistani
prison system as a whole. The Oxford University Amnesty International group condemn the decision to execute Dr. Zulfiqar Ali Khan and call on President Asif Ali Zardari to act in accordance with international opinion as well as historic precident in Pakistan by commuting the death sentence.