For thirty-one years, I have been a witness to various governments' efforts to execute people in a variety of ways. The bizarre nature of this barbaric debate continued apace on Monday, as a judge in Pakistan faced the government's demand for a date on the gallows for Abdul Basit, a condemned man rendered paraplegic some years ago when the prison failed to provide him with treatment for tubercular meningitis.
The judge appeared sympathetic to the argument that it would be simply barbaric to hang a man in a wheelchair, but the prosecution lawyer was vehement in his desire that Abdul Basit should swing. If a man in a wheelchair killed a score of people, he demanded, would he be spared the noose? (Conveniently, he ignored the fact that Abdul Basit was put into his wheelchair by the very prison authorities who were charged with treating him humanely.)
Faced with a barrage of venom, the judge turned to the prison authorities: precisely how, he demanded, did they plan to hang Abdul Basit? The jailers muttered and stuttered, but eventually conceded that they had not yet figured this one out. The judge ordered them to return within 24 hours with a plan. None was forthcoming.
One might think that the most vengeful of governments would accept that Abdul Basit has suffered enough, whether he committed the crime or not. While he has been on death row for a decade (itself a dreadful punishment), he has come within hours of execution twice already this summer (which verges on torture), and his volunteer lawyers have had no time to investigate any claims of innocence, given the arguments over how the noose should be applied.
In the meantime he has been paralysed from the waist down, with creeping loss of his upper body movement. He has lost all sphincter control. He cannot walk even a brief distance. He cannot climb the steps to the gallows. He cannot stand on the trapdoor, with the noose around his neck, to await his death.
Back in the day - when Britain killed people who we thought had killed people to show that killing people was wrong - the notorious hangman Albert Pierrepoint would come in to measure the condemned man's neck, and weigh him, to calculate the distance of a final drop that would break his neck without wrenching the head from the torso. It was a strange and sickening science that ultimately led Pierrepoint to declare his opposition to capital punishment.
It is rather chilling to imagine what will be taking place in the coming days, as Pierrepoint's Pakistani descendants ponder how best to kill this man. They will presumably be pulling out their paraplegia charts, factoring in the weight of his wheelchair, and wondering how best to roll Abdul Basit into place, all in the name of justice. Let us hope that sanity prevails.