Mr. Masih says he has executed about 200 prisoners, but he has been idle since a 2008 moratorium.
Once he had plenty to keep him busy. Before the Pakistani government introduced a moratorium on capital punishment in 2008, the hangman, Sabir Masih, dispatched about 200 prisoners at the gallows over a period of three years.
But since then, he has been idle. Every day, he clocks into work at the Kot Lakhpat prison on the edge of Lahore. Every month, he collects his $120 salary. But mostly, he spends his time chatting with fellow Christians at the graveyard, where they furtively smoke and drink out of view of conservative Muslims, for whom alcohol is forbidden.
The moratorium, which was introduced by President Asif Ali Zardari, had drained his sense of purpose, he said.
“My job requires courage,” said Mr. Masih, speaking among the gravestones, in a maudlin tone. “It is not for the weak-hearted, because one moment a person is alive, the next he is gone.”
But good news for Mr. Masih — and bad news for the estimated 8,000 prisoners awaiting execution in Pakistan — may be near.
Since coming to power in June, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who favors capital punishment, announced a review of the moratorium. And with Mr. Zardari set to end his tenure as president on Sunday, executions could soon be reinstated.
“The moratorium was not legal,” said Sartaj Aziz, the adviser to the prime minister on national security and foreign affairs. “We are debating whether to continue the stay on execution.”
Although the death penalty enjoys some popular support in Pakistan, the possibility that it will be reinstated has drawn sharp disapproval from an unlikely coalition of critics, including jihadist commanders and business leaders, albeit for entirely different reasons.
Human rights activists and the International Commission of Jurists argued that the manifest flaws in Pakistan’s tattered judicial system meant that the innocent, as well as the guilty, could go to the gallows.
In mid-August, one Taliban commander, Asmatullah Muawiya, threatened to attack members of Mr. Sharif’s party if the government carried out its plan to begin executing imprisoned jihadists.
The incongruity of a demand for clemency from a group that has killed thousands of civilians was not lost on some Pakistanis. Neither was the timing: Mr. Muawiya’s threat came one week before the prison authorities were set to hang two sectarian militants who had killed a Shiite doctor in 2004.
Mr. Zardari, who has used his powers to block nearly every hanging since 2008, let it be known in private that he would not relent while still in office, human rights campaigners said.
Under pressure, Mr. Sharif agreed to extend the moratorium, but only until Mr. Zardari leaves office. And he faces a clamor from other Pakistanis who favor a resumption of executions, either for reasons of religious conviction, or out of sheer frustration at the broken judicial system.
“The death penalty is part of the Shariah and the Holy Koran,” said Shaukat Javed, a former police chief of Punjab Province, where most death row prisoners are held. “Sooner or later, we will have to start executing inmates.”
Under Pakistani law, convicts sentenced to life imprisonment are often released after as little as 10 years. In some cases, the rich and influential can buy their way out of jail. And militants with the Taliban and other banned groups, who have killed thousands of civilians, are rarely convicted.
“We need to tighten the law before we can talk about abolishing the death penalty,” said Mr. Aziz, the government adviser. He added that the death penalty was still in use in India and the United States, two countries from which Pakistanis are often loath to accept lectures.
Before the freeze on executions, Pakistan was one of the world’s most enthusiastic proponents of capital punishment. About 27 offenses, including blasphemy and computer crimes, are punishable by execution. The 8,000 Pakistanis on death row account for about one-third of the world total, according to Amnesty International (although the group does not have figures for China, which is thought to carry out the highest number of executions).
Government officials say they might permanently extend the moratorium on human rights and business grounds — although critics believe they are equally influenced by fear of the Taliban.
In a joint letter to Mr. Sharif and others on Aug. 16, Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists said that a resumption of executions would constitute “a major step back for human rights in the country.” Human rights groups have also been sharply critical about the quality of trial justice in Pakistan, and have raised concerns about the high number of teenagers on death row.
In Islamabad on Aug. 27, Ana Gomes, the head of a European Union trade delegation, warned that new hangings would represent a “major setback” to Pakistan’s chance of obtaining lucrative trade tariffs: a matter that is subject to a vote in European Parliament in the coming weeks.
For Mr. Zardari, the moratorium is personal and political. His father-in-law, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a one-time prime minister and father of Benazir Bhutto, was executed under the military dictator Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq in 1979.
Since then, Mr. Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has been staunchly opposed to capital punishment. But he has faced private pressure from the military to resume executions, resulting in one exception — that of Muhammad Hussain, a soldier convicted on charges of murdering a senior officer, who was hanged in November 2012 after a military trial.
In recent days, senior rights activists have reported rumors that the new president, Mamnoon Hussain, would extend the freeze on executions.
Mr. Masih, the Lahore hangman, hopes that the activists are wrong. Back at the Lahore graveyard, he said that if hangings do resume, he anticipated a busy time clearing the backlog. “I might have to hang three or four in a day,” he said.
Although his father and grandfather had been hangmen, he said he found the job difficult at first. But then he learned “not to think about it.”
Musing on his job, he explained his technique for guiding condemned men through their last moments.
“After he is placed on the trap door, I tell him that if he needs to pray, he should do it in his heart,” he said. “Then I go to the lever and pull it.”
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