Book Review: “Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan” by Isabel Buchanan

Isabel Buchanan was a 23-year old Scottish law graduate when she moved to Pakistan to work in Lahore on capital defence cases. In her book, Trials: On Death Row in Pakistan, which won the Saltire First Book Award and was named book of the year by The Economistand The Spectator, she tells the captivating story of life as a human rights lawyer. All of this takes place in a country with very few women lawyers and a reputation for corruption and injustice.

Buchanan, now a practicing barrister in London, says her interest in Pakistan was sparked by the apparent contradictions of its legal system. The laws were originally drafted by British barristers during the Raj and then gradually amended by Pakistan’s courts and government. This gave rise to a combination of British statute, Sharia-compliant alterations and Indian and Pakistani case law. Perhaps as a result, Buchanan observed that the country “seemed to have a remarkably independent legal system where courts can order government action and Bar Association protests can halt the impeachment of the Chief Justice.”

During her time as a caseworker for Justice Project Pakistan, Buchanan worked closely with Executive Director Sarah Belal, a qualified barrister in Pakistan. Together they worked to give a voice to the poorest prisoners facing the death penalty. One of them was Altaf Rehman, father of four, who had been charged with blasphemy, which is a capital offence in Pakistan. Belal took on his case in the courts of Karachi, and up to the Supreme Court, pleading insanity. Through Buchanan’s account of working on Mr. Rehman’s case, we learn of the injustice of the blasphemy laws in Pakistan, which require no proof of intent on the part of the wrongdoer and can, therefore, be committed even by mere accident. However, despite a high number of accusations and subsequent convictions, Buchanan notes at the time of writing that no one had been executed for blasphemy in the country, which may have been the result of a “quiet, subtle act of objection” of the higher courts who find ways of overturning convictions. The danger for the accused is to be trapped and forgotten in the system’s immense backlog of cases.

At the start of the book, in 2013, it was estimated that there were at least 8,000 people detained on death row, making Pakistan home to one of the world’s largest death row population. Although a moratorium was placed on the death penalty in 2008, it was reinstated in 2015 following the December 2014 terrorist attack on a public school in Peshawar. Since 2015, more than 470 prisoners have been executed. Buchanan’s story is compelling and full of humanity, through her heartfelt and detailed narrative of a select handful of individual cases she worked on. As accurately summarised in her opening chapter, her story is one “of Pakistan, and an inquiry into what the law can and cannot do.”