Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Black Sharia

Relatives of 36 year old Briton Mirza-Tahir Hussain face another anxious wait as Pakistani authorities asked a court on Monday to fix a new date for his execution. In 1988, half Hussain’s lifetime ago, the then 18-year-old from Leeds, was arrested for murder while visiting Pakistan. Another 18 years later he remains on death row at Rawalpindi’s Adiala prison. He was convicted for the murder of a taxi driver - a crime he vehemently denies. He is awaiting death despite been acquitted of all charges by Pakistan's high court ten years ago. But Hussein was tried a second time, this time according to Islamic Sharia Law. Sharia Law is the Muslim world version of civil action. And in this court he was re-convicted and given the death penalty.

In his secular court trial, the acquitting judge criticised the police investigation which led to his arrest. The judge said he was the victim of a "shameless" set-up by police who fabricated evidence. Mirza-Tahir Hussain was due to be hanged last Wednesday but the date was delayed after Tony Blair mentioned the matter in a meeting with Pakistan’s President Musharraf last week. However Musharraf told ITV’s Sunday Edition that he could not reverse the Sharia court’s decision. “I’m not a dictator,” he said. “I can’t violate a court judgment, whether you like the court or not.”

Executions do not take place during Ramadan, which celebrates the month Allah revealed the first verses of the Koran to Muhammad. Nor can it occur in the three-day Eid-Al-Fitr celebration which follows. This means that Hussain cannot now be hung before 27 October. He was originally due to be hanged on 3 May, but the execution was stayed three times by Musharraf, while his family launched last-ditch efforts to negotiate with the victim's family. Under Sharia law, the victim’s heirs can pardon a condemned man in return for compensation or "blood money”. They have so far refused.

Mirza-Tahir was born in Pakistan and the family moved to Britain when he was 8 years old. They settled in Leeds where his father worked in a car factory. His brother Amjad told the Guardian: "It was strange at first but we adjusted quickly," he said, "At that age, you don't carry much cultural baggage. My brother was a typical Yorkshire lad. He loved cricket and football. He had a lot of friends. When he finished school he joined the Territorial Army and did his A-levels part-time at a local college. He wanted to join the regular army."

But Mirza-Tahir never joined the army. In December 1988, he decided to go to Pakistan to visit relatives. It was his first trip alone. Mirza-Tahir caught a plane to Pakistan’s biggest city Karachi and stayed overnight with an aunt. The following day, he travelled to Rawalpindi in northern Pakistan by train and from there, at night, took a taxi to go to his family's village. According to Mirza-Tahir, the driver, Jamshed Khan, stopped the car in the middle of nowhere and brandished a gun. Khan forced Hussain to get out of the car where he tried to sexually assault him. Hussain fought back and in the scuffle, the gun went off, killing the driver. In a state of shock, he then drove the taxi in the dark to the nearest highway patrol police checkpoint. There he told them his story and was promptly arrested.

He was taken to Rawalpindi where he was interrogated and tortured. He was not allowed a lawyer. They tried to pin other crimes on him, although he was in England at the time. Most crucial to the case, there was no identifiable motive except self-defence. Nevertheless, his first trial in September 1989 at Islamabad secular court found him guilty of murder. Hussain was sentenced to death. His lawyer appealed to the High Court where the death penalty was revoked and a retrial ordered. In 1994, Mirza-Tahir was sentenced to life imprisonment. Again, he appealed and finally in 1996, the high court acquitted him of all charges.

Unfortunately for Hussain, his ordeal was not over. Pakistan’s dual legal system kicked in. The secular courts are based on English common law and follow the British legal tradition. But Pakistan also has Sharia courts to adjudicate on matters of Islamic law, such as sexuality and social issues such as theft. Because he was charged with the theft of the taxi, he could be retried under Islamic law. His earlier acquittal had no force in this court. In May 1998 three Islamic judges found him guilty on a 2-1 vote (the dissenter objected in the strongest terms but was overruled) and the death penalty was re-imposed. The Hussain family then negotiated with Jamshed Khan's family, who near the wild border with Afghanistan. The Khan family would not be swayed by blood money. Hussain remains on death row to this day.

Supporters say Sharia Law was introduced to protect the five important indispensables in Islam (religion, life, intellect, offspring and property). The term Sharia derives from the Arabic verb shara'a, which connects to the idea of "system of divine law; way of belief and practice" (45:18) in the Koran. The comprehensive nature of Sharia law is due to the belief that the law must provide all that is necessary for a person's spiritual and physical well-being. Pakistan, Indonesia, Sudan and Bangladesh among others have Sharia law to deal with so-called family matters. India also has a separate legal system for its Muslim, based on Sharia. Western countries with Muslim populations such as Canada and Australia have also requested Sharia courts be set up for Muslim social issues. The punishments prescribed by Sharia are often seen as unusually being barbaric and cruel. Islamic scholars argue that, if implemented properly, the punishments serve as a deterrent to crime.

Islamic women are often viewed as being oppressed because of the strict morality and dress codes required by Sharia. In 2002, an Islamic court in Nigeria upheld a sentence of death by stoning for a woman accused of adultery. The Koran is viewed as a document that awards authority to husbands over their wives. Husbands can verbally admonish wives for infractions, before refraining from sex if further punishment is required. And if that doesn’t work he may “beat her lightly” (Koran 4:34). Most interpretations of Sharia allow the death penalty for homosexual acts. Acceptable means of execution included burning, throwing from tall buildings, and stoning. While Sharia proclaims itself as fundamental to Islamic moral values, opponents see it as the instrument by which Political Islam seeks to control the Muslim world. Hussain is another of its victims, patiently awaits his hanging for stealing a dead man’s taxi to talk to the police.

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