Shortly before he was put to death, Aftab Bahadur wrote an essay. He spoke of his alienation and loneliness, of the comfort he found in art and poetry, and of the anguish of awaiting execution on death row in Pakistan.
"I doubt there is anything more dreadful than being told that you are going to die, and then sitting in a prison cell just waiting for that moment," he said, according to a text translated from Urdu and released by Reprieve, a human rights group based in Britain.
"For many years — since I was just 15 years old — I have been stranded between life and death. It has been a complete limbo, total uncertainty about the future," he added.
At 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, as dawn crept across South Asia, all uncertainty ended. After more than two decades in jail, protesting his innocence throughout, Bahadur was led from his cell in Lahore Central Jail and hanged. He was 38.
For human rights groups, church leaders (Bahadur was Christian), his lawyers and numerous other individuals around the world who'd been lobbying for him to be spared, this was a profoundly painful defeat.
Reprieve's founder, the attorney Clive Stafford Smith, a lifelong campaigner against capital punishment, said Bahadur's execution left him "in a state of sickening despair."
For the past six months, executions have taken place almost daily in Pakistan. Most generate few headlines. Bahadur's case is an exception, not least because he was so young when he was convicted.
In 1992, Bahadur, a plumber's apprentice, was arrested and charged with the murder in Lahore of a woman and her two sons. Rights lawyers say his conviction was based on testimony coerced from two people. Both subsequently recanted.
At the time, 15 was the age of legal responsibility in Pakistan. In 2000, this was raised to 18. International law prohibits nations from imposing the death penalty on minors; Bahadur's execution violates this, say rights activists.
A few years ago, Pakistan introduced a moratorium on capital punishment. This was lifted last December after the Taliban overran an army-run school in Peshawar and massacred more than 130 schoolchildren. There was public fury and disgust. Resuming executions was part of a package of measures introduced by the government on the promise of wiping out terrorism.
Amnesty International says that Pakistan has since executed at least 157 people.
"I think what we have seen in Pakistan over the last six months is incredibly alarming," said spokesperson Olof Blomqvist. "Pakistan is quickly becoming one of the world's top executioners."
Pakistan's most prominent human rights activist, Asma Jahangir, a former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, is calling on Pakistan's government to stop. Only a fraction of those executed since December were convicted of terrorism offenses, she says.
Pakistan has thousands of people on death row.
"There are feeble, mentally challenged and terminally ill people scheduled for execution," said Jahangir. "Making Pakistan into a slaughterhouse is insane."
Others raise broad concerns about the use of capital punishment in a country where convictions can be decided by the use of bribes and torture, which were also seen as factors in Bahadur's case.
Activist Farzana Bari describes Pakistan's judicial system as "corrupt" and full of flaws. "We do not want the death penalty to be given to anybody in Pakistan," he adds.
Whether there's much public support for that view among Pakistan's 190 million citizens seems doubtful. The voice of civil society in Pakistan, never strong, is diminishing, thanks to assassinations and constant threats against activists.
People interviewed by NPR in a market in Islamabad spoke approvingly of the return of capital punishment.
"Whatever type of crime is committed, punishment must be given," said Khadim Hussein, 60, a storekeeper. "This is an Islamic law. God and the Prophet also say the same."
Hussein spoke approvingly of the decision to hang Bahadur: "He committed a crime. His age is irrelevant here. The crime is bigger. So what if he is underage?"
His opinion seems to chime with plenty of others. After Bahadur's execution, the European Union issued a statement expressing concern about the rising execution rate in Pakistan, and calling for the government to reinstate the moratorium. Dawn newspaper reported this on its website, along with a survey asking its readers if they agreed.
Overwhelmingly, they did not.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In Pakistan, a long battle to save a life has come to an end. The life was that of a death row prisoner named Aftab Bahadur. The battle was fought by his lawyers and international human rights activists. Bahadur was only 15 years old when he was convicted of a triple murder, a crime he denies. Yesterday, he was hanged. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.
PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Shortly before he was put to death, Aftab Bahadur sat down in his prison cell and wrote an essay. He spoke of his alienation and loneliness, of how he tried to ease this with poetry and painting and of the anguish of awaiting execution on death row. The text was released by Reprieve, a U.K.-based human rights group campaigning on Bahadur's behalf.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Reading) For many years, since I was just 15 years old, I've been stranded between life and death. It's been a complete limbo, total uncertainty about the future.
REEVES: That uncertainty ended yesterday. Bahadur was hanged just before dawn in the central jail in the city of Lahore. He was convicted in 1992 of murdering a woman and her two sons. He spent more than 22 years in prison protesting his innocence. Reprieve says his conviction was based on testimony extracted from two people who later retracted. When the murders occurred, 15 was the minimum age for legal responsibility in Pakistan. This was later raised to 18.
FARZANA BARI: I think it's very disturbing.
REEVES: That's rights campaigner Farzana Bari.
BARI: If you think by hanging children we will control the crime rate, I think that is completely misplaced understanding. And it's not going to make any difference.
REEVES: A few years back, Pakistan introduced a moratorium on capital punishment. This was lifted last December, when the Taliban massacred more than 130 kids at an army-run school in Peshawar. At least 157 people have been hanged since then, says Olof Blomqvist of Amnesty International.
OLOF BLOMQVIST: I think what we've seen in Pakistan in the last six months has been incredibly alarming. Pakistan is quickly becoming one of the world's top executioners.
REEVES: The execution's being condemned by groups and individuals worldwide. Bahadur was a Christian. Church leaders were among the thousands who'd appealed for him to be spared. In Pakistan, his death's getting scant attention. So is the wave of recent executions here. Shoppers in a market in Islamabad today spoke approvingly of the return of capital punishment. This is storekeeper Khadim Hussein.
KHADIM HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) Whatever type of crime is committed, punishment must be given. This is an Islamic law. God and prophet also say the same.
REEVES: Hussein approves of the decision to hang Bahadur.
HUSSEIN: (Through interpreter) He committed a crime. His age is irrelevant here. The crime is bigger. So what if he's under age?
REEVES: The concerns of rights activists extend way beyond the Bahadur case. They say in Pakistan, convictions are sometimes secured by torture or depend on the ability to pay a bribe. Farzana Bari says Pakistan's almost daily executions should stop.
BARI: The way criminal justice system is being so corrupt and so full of flaws, we do not want, you know, death penalty to be, you know, given to anybody in Pakistan.
REEVES: The executions continue. In the last two days, there have been three. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.