ISLAMABAD - Pakistan Wednesday hanged a man allegedly tortured into confessing to murder as a minor and rejected an appeal from another also said to have been under-age, in the latest death row cases to draw international condemnation.
Aftab Bahadur Masih went to the gallows in the eastern city of Lahore after more than two decades on death row, prison officials said, despite pleas for mercy from lawyers and church leaders who said he was only 15 when convicted.
Hours later the Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Shafqat Hussain, convicted of killing a young boy in 2004 - when his lawyers and family say he was under 18 and therefore not eligible for execution.
Pakistan's resumption of executions in December after a six-year moratorium has prompted grave concern from rights groups, the United Nations and the European Union.
Critics say the country's criminal justice system is marred by police torture and poor legal representation, meaning many of those now facing the gallows have not had a fair trial.
Hussain's case has attracted particular attention from international human rights campaigners. On Tuesday he was granted his fourth stay of execution in five months.
But on Wednesday the Supreme Court rejected an application by Hussain's lawyers to set up a judicial commission to determine his age.
"Sorry, the petition is dismissed. This matter has to come to an end someday," said Chief Justice Nasir-ul-Mulk, the head of a three-judge panel.
"This court has already dismissed the plea regarding age. For the court, the case has already been closed when the review petition was dismissed." The ruling clears another obstacle to Hussain's hanging, though it was not immediately clear when a new death warrant would be issued.
Hussain's lawyer Tariq Hassan said two new mercy petitions had been sent to the president.
Hussain's age has proved difficult to determine. His supporters say he was 14 or 15 at the time of the killing but police insist he was over 20.
Mercy plea rejected
Exact birth records are not always kept in Pakistan, particularly for people from poor families like Hussain's.
The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said the country has now hanged over 150 convicts since restarting executions in December following a shocking Taliban school massacre - more than Saudi Arabia over the same period.
In the Masih case, a last-minute plea for clemency from rights groups, church leaders and the Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights law firm handling his case, fell on deaf ears.
He had spent 23 years in prison after being convicted of murder in the eastern city of Lahore in 1992.
Supporters say Masih was tortured into confessing to the crimes as were two of the witnesses against him - including his co-accused Ghulam Mustafa - who have both since retracted their statements.
In a moving essay from his condemned cell, published by Britain's Guardian newspaper a day before his execution, Masih reflected on his life on death row, during which time he received numerous death warrants.
"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 wrote.
"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." British anti-death penalty campaign group Reprieve condemned Masih's hanging as a "travesty of justice" and a "shameful day for Pakistan's justice system".
"To the last, Pakistan refused even to grant his lawyers the few days needed to present evidence which would have proved his innocence," Maya Foa, director of Reprieve's death penalty team, said in a statement.
Amnesty International estimates that Pakistan has more than 8,000 prisoners on death row, many of whom have exhausted all avenues of appeal.