Death row prisoners and their families : assistance and support
“Humiliation is like … wherever I go I can see Malaysian people looking at me like I’m also a murderer or my family could not raise a child to be a good person. I’m sorry, I’m a bit emotional because every time I wake up I have to be strong even though I am not strong, I have to be strong for my brother, for my mother, for my clients, and every day I have to tell lies to them, to say that everything is OK, you have hope, you have hope, even though I don’t know whether they have hope or not, because in Malaysia once you are sentenced to death you are depending on the Sultan, on the King, to pardon you. Without their pardon, you won’t be able to get out.”
a Malaysian lawyer whose brother is on death row.
The stigmatization of people who have been imprisoned and sentenced to death emerged as a major issue both for survivors and their families. It hampers their reintegration and prevents them from finding jobs, or obtaining accommodation. Discrimination, to which are often added insults and abuse, are humiliating, undermine their dignity, and may increase their social isolation. There is a tremendous psychological burden on prisoners, who must wait inactive in their cells on death row, sometimes for years; and on families, who are anguished by the situation of their son, or husband, or brother, who may not be permitted to visit, and can do so little to help – but must continue to work, and raise the children, and support the family.
“When you talk about the death penalty in my country, people say ‘You took away a person’s life so one needs to take another life’. But on my side, as the offender’s family, I lost two members of my family (my father and grandmother) … I became head of the family and had to pay all the liabilities that my father left and all the liabilities that my brother left. From the very first time he was arrested, friends, lawyers, mocked and insulted me. I was terminated from my job and had to open up my own firm… Finance was so difficult. I had to sell my father’s house, my bracelets and necklace, I even had to sell food at the roadside because I could not find a job…”
a Malaysian lawyer whose brother is on death row.
When prisoners do come out, the challenges of adjusting, often after years of imprisonment, are made infinitely harder by discrimination, which does not spare those who have been exonerated and declared innocent of the crime they were accused of.
Sohail Emmanuel was on death row in Pakistan for ten years. His family was poor. One evening he was stopped by the police and detained. He did not know why he had been arrested, but was tortured for eight nights and seven days and then spent nine years in a correction centre infamous for its brutality. His problems did not end when he was released. For ten years, he was alone and had no-one to support him in his job search and reinsertion into society. A major difficulty was the ten-year gap in his career: once he was hired as a loader but fired after a month when his employers learned of his conviction. Today, Mr Emmanuel works with the Sunny Center, a support centre for people wrongly imprisoned, and is establishing a Sunny Center in Pakistan. About this work, he said: “First concentrate on the person involved, then on society and institutions”.
The stigmatization of people who have been imprisoned and sentenced to death emerged as a major issue both for survivors and their families.
“The moment we walk out of that cell, of that prison … we are released to start serving a life sentence in society. What I mean is that society has rules that [bear down on you], because you have been convicted of a crime regardless of whether you are innocent or not. […] They could see that I was found innocent of that murder, but because I have been arrested for that murder they make it difficult for us to find jobs, make it difficult for us to rent places, make it difficult for us to become productive members of society… I got married. I try to get a job, I can’t get a job, I try to rent a place, it’s most difficult… “
Chair, Witness to Innocence, former detainee on death row.
It is crucial to give survivors and their families a voice. They need to be able to say what has happened to them in order to overcome the humiliation, exclusion and denigration that they experience, and make life better for others. In the words of Ensaf Haidar, who fled Saudi Arabia with her children after her husband was arrested and condemned, the situation will not change as long as we are oppressed by pain and fear. “If we do not speak, our silence is a chain round our freedom.”
Above all, the families of detainees, and former death row prisoners, need practical support. All the speakers agreed on this critical point.
Regardless of geographical and cultural differences, we fight the same battle… We have to be strong, all the time, day in day out, night in night out. And, you know, there’s a point when you are so tired, so drained, and people still come and tap you on the shoulder and say ‘You’re strong, you’ll be fine’ – and you just want to scream from the top of your lungs ‘I am not fine! My strength, I have to feed it, I have to build it, I can’t do it alone!’ But you have no choice. The issue of support and assistance at this point for us, in this particular workshop, is more important than stories and testimonies. Because, how do you deal with it? You develop your own support network. In some countries, there is nobody to turn to. Sometimes there are NGOs. You can count on one finger the number of NGOs who actually will help individual cases of families (or former death row prisoners for that matter). Even if you have a supportive family and friends, which is my case, they understand the words when I tell my experiences, but they are not in my shoes, they have not been through it. There are very few people with whom we can really share.
So I think the networking concept that was mentioned earlier is very important. A lot of families are in some countries totally isolated. No matter where we are, we all endure social, economic, professional discrimination because of our situation. Support networks need to be in place. NGOs must realize that we all deserve help, whether we are former death row prisoners or death row families. And it’s not just a question of money. Of course, money will help you develop your communication system. But emotionally, psychologically, guys, it is hell – that is what I wanted to say.”
married to a death row prisoner.