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Mirza Tahir Hussain

Volume 450: debated on Wednesday 25 October 2006

I am very pleased to have an opportunity to raise this important issue in the House. The subject matter could hardly be of greater import or significance, and my purpose is to put the facts of the case on record. This remarkable tale of injustice continues, despite the fact that it has been more than 18 years since Mirza Tahir Hussain first visited Pakistan and the nightmare began.

I learned of the case when my constituent Amjad Hussain contacted me earlier this year. Of course, as his MP, I offered to do what I could to assist, but it was only when I was told the facts of the case that I realised that I was dealing with an extraordinary miscarriage of justice, one that all of us involved in the campaign have pledged to resolve.

Let me share with hon. Members the background of the case. Mirza Tahir Hussain was just 18 years old when he visited Pakistan for the first time in December 1988 to establish links with his family. On the very day of his arrival, while proceeding to meet his family, he was involved in an incident in the Punjab province. He accepted a ride in a taxi and was driven to a remote area, and in that place there was an incident that resulted in the death of the taxi driver from a gunshot wound.

It is not disputed that the gun involved belonged to the taxi driver, nor that Mr. Hussain drove immediately to the nearest police station to report the incident. In his account of the incident, he states that the taxi driver physically assaulted him and attempted to sexually assault him. In the scuffle that followed, he acted to defend himself, and the taxi driver’s gun was discharged.

Mirza Tahir Hussain was tried and convicted of murder in 1989 and sentenced to death, but he has been acquitted twice by the Lahore High Court, which identified discrepancies in the case. The first acquittal was shortly after his original conviction, and the second was in 1996 following his reconviction and re-sentencing in 1994.

However, the prosecution and the deceased’s family challenged the 1996 acquittal, arguing that some of the offences that Mirza Tahir allegedly committed were crimes that came within the jurisdiction of Islamic law. Specifically, it was claimed that Mirza Tahir was guilty of the crime of highway robbery, or hararbah—highway robbery after dusk—because he was found to be in possession of the taxi.

As a result, the entire case was referred to the Federal Sharia Court in 1998, where it was reheard. There, although Mirza Tahir was found innocent of the crime of hararbah, he was again sentenced to death. That verdict was reached despite the fact that one of the three judges dissented strongly and robustly, suggesting that Mirza Tahir should be acquitted and allowed to return to his family. Indeed, the judge submitted a substantive verdict. It was almost 59 pages in length, and it outlined numerous and far-reaching legal flaws in the case, which I shall discuss in a few moments.

Let me make it clear that my intention is not in any way to criticise or attack the Pakistani Government or judicial system. It is for the Government and the citizens of Pakistan to come up with their own laws and systems of justice. The point in this case is simply that due process according to the tenets of Pakistani law and the Pakistani constitution was not followed. Several fundamental legal issues at the centre of the case have never been addressed or resolved.

First, when Mirza Tahir Hussain was first convicted, the principle of the presumption of innocence was not followed. There was no eye-witness testimony, no credible motive was established and the only evidence presented was weak and obtained through intense interrogation. Furthermore, Mirza Tahir and the deceased were not known to each other in any way, there were no prior incidences of malice or dispute and Mirza Tahir had no previous convictions. He was also at considerable disadvantage in bringing forth independent corroborative evidence in support of his version of events. He was a young man, alone at the hands of police who dealt with him in a way that we would not wish our suspects to be treated, and at times he had limited or no access to legal representation.

Indeed, attempts were made by the police and the prosecution to fabricate evidence against Mirza Tahir, to portray him as a habitual offender and even fictitiously to implicate him in a case of which he was subsequently acquitted. That case took place before he had even arrived in the country.

However, the fundamental flaws in the legal process are far from limited to the initial conviction. They have persisted throughout the entire process. The fundamental principle of double jeopardy was also not followed. As I said, Mirza Tahir was found innocent of the crime of hararbah but guilty of the death of the taxi driver, which is why he was again sentenced to death, despite the fact that the international principle of double jeopardy states that a defendant should not be tried twice for the same crime. That principle is enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan.

The judgment presented by the dissenting sharia judge, Mr. Justice Abdul Waheed Siddique, also revealed that the Federal Sharia Court had no power, as a result of the terms of the original conviction, to enhance the sentence from life to death. Furthermore, the tenets of Islamic law clearly state that the death penalty should be imposed only if a minimum of two credible eye-witness accounts or a confession are submitted to the court. Neither was submitted in this case.

In his statement, Justice Siddique refers explicitly to the falsification of evidence by the police as “shameless”. He also states that the investigating agency was guilty of introducing false witnesses. He pointed out that the medical evidence presented at the trial was in direct contradiction of the account given by prosecutors. At the trial, the prosecution claimed that the deceased was shot, and that his body was dragged from the driver’s seat and thrown 15 feet away from the road. However, there was no trail of blood, or any evidence of dragging on the body of the deceased.

In the words of Justice Siddique, the entire judgment was based on surmise and conjecture. According to him, any one of the points outlined above were enough to have Mirza Tahir’s entire sentence quashed, let alone uphold an irreversible death penalty. The points that he raised and the fact that the High Court in Lahore has twice acquitted Mirza Tahir have never been resoundingly addressed by the Supreme Court in Pakistan, yet Mirza Tahir Hussain remains in prison under penalty of death.

We recognise that there are miscarriages of justice in every legal system in the world, and the United Kingdom is no exception. We are all aware of the cases of the Guildford Four, who were released in 1989 after spending 15 years in prison. Their convictions were crushed by the court of appeal after serious flaws were found in the original police investigation. The Birmingham Six were release in 1991 after 16 years in prison. Of course, we are all aware of the infamous case of Derek Bentley, the last man hanged in Britain. He was hanged on 28 January 1953 for allegedly murdering a policeman, and it took 46 years for his conviction to be overturned by the court of appeal. We hope and pray that in this case Mirza Tahir’s conviction will be overturned before it is too late.

It is of course for the Pakistani authorities to come up with a solution to the case. One solution that has been mooted is that under the provisions of Islamic law, if a blood money settlement can be found between the two families, the accused can be pardoned and released. However, the negotiations broke down some time ago and the family of the deceased have categorically stated that they will not accept any form of reparations and have been vocal in calling for Mirza Tahir’s execution to go ahead.

In my opinion, blood money is not a solution that will bring justice in this case. As the conviction is so clearly unsafe, there is no criminal. If there is no crime, there is no victim and if there is no victim, there cannot be reasonable negotiations with a so-called victim’s family. There are many of us who believe that Mirza Tahir was the victim of crime, not the perpetrator, all those years ago in 1988. There is strong circumstantial evidence that he was attacked in a most terrifying way, so for his to be facing the death penalty at all is appalling.

One thing is certain. He has certainly been a victim, the victim of an unsafe conviction that has caused him to be in prison for his entire adult life—half the time he has spent on this earth. I remember how struck I was when Amjad told me how old his beloved brother is. He is 36 years old; I was struck because I am the same age. I think back to when I was 18. I had just left school, I had a place at university, and I remember celebrating my 18th birthday with my family in Ireland. Now, 18 years on, I been elected to Parliament, I have married and had a daughter. I now have family of my own.

Mirza Tahir Hussain has been denied all those things—the chance to go to university, to get a job, to find a career and to marry and have a family. That is a huge price to pay for even a guilty man, but a nightmare beyond comprehension for someone who has never been satisfactorily convicted and who many people do not believe actually committed the crime.

It is for Pakistan to come up with solutions, but they should not involve blood money negotiations when the whole point is that the conviction is unsafe and that Mirza Tahir Hussain was never proven in a court of law to have committed any crime. Nor should he and his family be put through the anguish of yet another stay of execution. There have now been four and it is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine the rollercoaster of emotion and despair that the family go through in what has become a cycle of new dates of execution and stays of execution. That simply amounts to mental torture for Mirza Tahir Hussain and his family. Alas, Mirza Tahir’s father died when the distressing case was ongoing. Amjad has expressed his mother’s pain, as she wonders whether she will ever see her son again.

President Musharraf has a critical role to play and I believe that it is quite clear, despite the ambiguity which has arisen over recent weeks, that he has the power and authority to prevent the execution. Article 45 of the Pakistani constitution clearly states:

“The President shall have power to grant pardon, reprieve and respite, and to remit, suspend or commute any sentence passed by any court, tribunal or other authority”.

That is any sentence in any court. In the words of the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Mr. Khurshid Mehmood Kasuri, in an interview in March of this year:

“the powers of the President under Article 45 of the Constitution to pardon a convict are absolute”.

Mr. Kasuri is far from alone in expressing that view. Law Ministers, senior counsels and eminent jurists from across Pakistan have confirmed that the President has the power to commute Mirza Tahir’s sentence. Figures as widespread and diverse as Dr. Khalid Ranjha, the chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Law, Justice and Human Rights and Parliamentary Affairs and former High Court justice; Senator S. M. Zafar, former law Minister and advocate of the Supreme Court in Pakistan; Senator Mohammed Khosa, member of the senate committee and Supreme Court advocate; Ms Afshan Ghanzafer, assistant advocate-general; Dr. Ilyas Zafar, Supreme Court advocate; and Nasir Aslam Zahid, former Supreme Court justice, have all confirmed that President Musharraf has both the power and authority to commute Mirza’s death sentence.

In 1988, there was also the case of Parminder Singh Saini, an Indian citizen who was pardoned by the then president, Mohammed Rafiq Tarar, who used his powers under article 45 first to commute the penalty to life imprisonment and then to issue a full pardon. The list goes on.

We all know how important it is to have a strong relationship between the UK and Pakistan, not least for the sizeable Pakistani communities in the UK and for our shared history and strong cultural ties. I and my neighbouring MPs are proud to represent a notable Pakistani Kashmiri community in Leeds, a community that I know is interested in the case and is following its progress. When the terrible news of the earthquake in Pakistan, Kashmir and India reached Leeds, the way in which the city responded was notable. I was pleased to take part in several fundraising events as local people pulled together, including people who had lost members of their families and their homes on that terrible day. I was also delighted at the way in which the many other communities of our diverse city responded.

So it is with this case. People of all backgrounds, cultures and races have contacted me and the family to express their support. Every time I chat to people on the train or in a taxi, Leeds people are well aware of the case and are fully behind the man’s release. In the same way as the people of Leeds demonstrated so powerfully their compassion and solidarity for the people in the affected region in Pakistan, I hope the Pakistani authorities will gave the same due regard for life and justice for this man, our man, from our proud city of Leeds.

The case is now known all over the world. There has been a long and hard-fought campaign for justice involving Amnesty International, the Islamic Human Rights Commission, Fair Trials Abroad, Reprieve, Human Rights Watch, the Bar Human Rights Committee, the Muslim Council of Britain and the Muslim Parliament of Great Britain. It is supported by my parliamentary neighbours in Leeds, the right hon. Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) and the Secretary of State for International Development, MEPs, EU leaders and all the civic and religious leaders of the great city of Leeds that is Mirza Tahir Hussain’s home.

I want to pay tribute to the way in which Mirza Tahir’s brother Amjad has led the campaign for his brother’s reprieve. Even when the outlook has looked at its bleakest, Amjad has conducted himself impeccably and the dignity and strength that he has shown throughout the extremely long and gruelling process has been nothing short of awe inspiring. He has been and continues to be an inspiration to us all in the campaign.

I know that the British Government and our representatives in Pakistan are taking Mirza Tahir Hussain’s plight extremely seriously and that they will continue to act in an appropriate manner to attempt to secure his reprieve and release. How and when he will be spared and when he will be returned to Leeds is for the Pakistani Government to decide. I am aware that that will not be an easy process and it is important to give some time and space to the Pakistani authorities to consider it. The campaign led by Amjad and the family will of course go on until those authorities finally act to spare Mirza Tahir’s life, free him and let him at last return home to his family in Leeds, where he belongs.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) has secured a debate on the case of Mirza Tahir Hussain, who languishes on death row in Pakistan. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman; he has worked long and hard on behalf of his constituent. Today, we heard an eloquent and poignant case made for the commutation of Mr. Hussain’s death sentence.

The Government continue to be extremely concerned about Mr. Hussain’s plight, and I welcome the opportunity to set out the Government’s position and to explain some of the actions that we have taken in our efforts to prevent Mr. Hussain’s execution.

Before concentrating on the specifics of the case, I want to emphasise the United Kingdom’s principled opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances. The Minister for Trade, my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who has responsibility for human rights, stated on world day against the death penalty on 10 October that the United Kingdom calls upon all states to abolish the death penalty for all crimes—and forever.

We welcome the fact that two further countries, Mexico and the Philippines, have joined the growing list of abolitionist states; and we recognise the progress that has been made in several other countries towards abolishing the death penalty. However, we regret that several countries continue to use it. As the hon. Gentleman said, the UK has ratified protocol 13 of the European convention on human rights, which prevents the use of the death penalty in any and all circumstances, including in times of war. Together with our EU partners, we continue to work towards universal opposition. The UK has established a reputation as an advocate for that cause, and the Government of Pakistan are well aware of our stance.

Our prime concern is to avoid the execution of British nationals. Our policy extends to all categories of British nationals, including dual nationals in the country of their second nationality—people to whom we do not automatically provide consular assistance. We now express our opposition to the death penalty and its use on a British national at whatever stage and level is judged appropriate, from the moment when the imposition of a death sentence on a British national becomes a possibility. That change in policy was announced by Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Brian Wilson to the House on 27 February 2001. Our previous policy was to make such representations only when the judicial process had been exhausted.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the background of Mr. Hussain’s case. Mirza Tahir Hussain was born in Pakistan but grew up in Leeds. He was arrested in December 1988, at the age of 18; and we have heard the details of the dreadful incident that resulted in calamity for him and his family. Mr. Hussain has been on death row for half of his life. The death sentence was at one stage lifted by a civil appeals court, then reinstated by the religious sharia court. Those factors—Mr. Hussain’s young age when the offence was committed, the length of time he has served on death row, and the agony for both Mr. Hussain and his family of the death penalty being lifted and then reinstated—provide a strong humanitarian argument for the commutation of Mr. Hussain’s sentence.

All appeals have now been dismissed, and the formal legal process is exhausted. The reconciliation process with the victim’s family, available under sharia law, in which senior Pakistani figures were engaged, seems to have failed. We welcome the fact that President Musharraf has granted three stays of execution to Mr. Hussain; the latest, granted on 19 October, will expire on 31 December. An execution date has yet to be set.

Numerous representations have been made by Her Majesty’s Government on behalf of Mr. Hussain at the highest level. The Prime Minister raised the case with President Musharraf during their meeting on 28 September, having previously written to him on 9 August, requesting that he look favourably on Mr. Hussain’s case. The Foreign Secretary discussed the matter with the Pakistani Foreign Minister at the United Nations general assembly in New York on 19 September, having previously written to President Musharraf on 18 May asking him to commute Mr. Hussain’s sentence to an appropriate term of imprisonment.

Other Ministerial representations have been made on Mr. Hussain’s behalf. I have been engaged on the case for some time, and raised it with Shaukat Aziz, the Pakistani Prime Minister during my visit to Pakistan in September; with Kamal Shah, the Secretary of the Ministry of the Interior; with Makhdum Khusro Bakhtyar, the Minister of State at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and with Lieutenant-General Aurakzai, the governor of the north-west frontier province, who described to me in some detail his attempts to get the family to agree to some form of financial settlement.

In the same month, the Home Secretary raised Mr. Hussain’s case with the Pakistani Interior Minister during a meeting in London. I also raised the case with the Pakistani High Commissioner, Dr. Maleeha Lodhi, on 25 July. The Secretary of State for International Development, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Hilary Benn), in his role as a Leeds constituency MP for some of Mr. Hussain’s family, has been personally involved in the case; he, too, wrote to President Musharraf in May. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas), and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), raised the case with the Pakistani Prime Minister earlier this month. Those are just some of the most recent ministerial level representations. There have been many more.

Numerous representations on Mr. Hussain’s behalf have also been made at senior official level. Mr. Hussain’s case is a priority for FCO officials in Pakistan and in London, and I thank them for their sustained efforts. I thank especially our High Commissioner to Islamabad, Mark Lyall Grant, who has been closely involved in Mr. Hussain’s case. He and his team have made frequent representations at senior official level, some made while I was there, and they have had intensive contacts with the President’s office and others. They will continue their efforts with the Pakistani authorities, as we all will, in order to achieve our goal of securing Mr. Hussain’s reprieve.

Mr. Hussain’s welfare is of paramount concern to us, and consular staff continue to visit him weekly at the prison. On that note, it is worth spending a moment focusing on Mr. Hussain’s family. No one can imagine how difficult and distressing the past 17 years must have been for them. Tahir's brother, Amjad, has been campaigning tirelessly on his brother's behalf, and I join the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West in admiring his courage and determination. Our staff, both in London and at the British High Commission in Pakistan, have maintained frequent contact with Mr. Hussain’s family, and will continue to liaise closely with them and to offer them all the support that we can.

As I said, our strong wish is to see Mr. Hussain’s sentence commuted. However, I stress, as did the hon. Gentleman, that the British Government cannot interfere in the judicial systems of other countries, just as we would not expect others to interfere in the British judicial system. The decision whether or not to commute Mr. Hussain’s sentence is therefore a sovereign decision for Pakistan. We know that the Pakistani authorities are considering the many representations that they have received about the case. We are grateful for the extensions that have been granted, and we sincerely hope that Pakistan will consider a merciful commutation—not because Tahir Hussain has British nationality, but because it would be a just and merciful decision. We all sincerely hope for a decision that is favourable to Tahir. However, I stress that we have not and will not seek to threaten the Government of Pakistan over the issue in any way. As I have said, it is a decision that must be made by the sovereign state of Pakistan, following the rules of its judicial system. We would not expect the British Government to be the subject of threats from abroad for a decision taken in accordance with our judicial system, and we will not begin the practice of threatening other Governments, no matter how passionately we may wish for an outcome that will spare the life of a British national or a dual national.

Although it has to be a sovereign decision for Pakistan, I hope that I have been able to reassure the hon. Gentleman and Tahir’s family that we have been doing all that we properly can for Mr. Hussain and his family. We will continue to do so and I hope fervently that Mr. Hussain will not be executed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes past Five o'clock.