Kala Shah Kaku, Pakistan – Malak al-Maut (the angel of death) was once, it is said by Islamic theologists, one of God’s favoured angels; a loyal servant who was entrusted with separating people’s souls from their bodies, when their time came.
To the righteous, it is said, the angel of death appears in a friendly form, a companion come to ease one’s passage to the other side.
For those who have sinned, however, the angel appears as a terrifying beast, a demon come to wreak divine judgment and wrench their souls away to eternal damnation.
For most prisoners on Pakistan‘s death row, he appears as Sabir Masih.
A family legacy
Since 2006, Masih has been one of three executioners in Pakistan’s eastern city of Lahore, the capital of Punjab, the country’s most populous province. Although he says that he does not keep track, he claims to have hanged more than 250 people since he started work.
Masih comes from a family of executioners. His father, Sadiq, hanged prisoners for 40 years before retiring in 2000. Masih’s grandfather and his brothers all did the same work, too. Indeed his granduncle, Tara Masih, hanged Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first elected prime minister, in 1979.
Tara had to be flown from Bahawalpur to Lahore because the executioner at Lahore’s Kot Lakhpat jail – Sabir’s father Sadiq – refused to hang the popular leader.
As a child, Sabir Masih always knew he would end up in the family business.
“I knew that this was a family profession,” the 33-year-old explains, sitting cross-legged in his maternal uncle’s simple home, about 25km outside of Lahore.
He was 22 the first time that he killed a man, a convicted murderer whose name he cannot recall.
“I didn’t know anything at that time. I had just seen a man hanged once in front of me,” he says. “I saw [my teacher] tie a noose once, the second time I did it myself.
“When I pull the lever, I don’t really think about it. You pull the lever, the man falls,” he says. “My focus is on the sign, from the jail superintendent.”
It was his first day on the job.
I am killing people based on the law. The murderer has killed by their choice, but I am not killing by my own choice... I have not picked the convict to kill.
Within eight months, he says proudly, he had already executed 100 men, “completing his century”, as he puts it.
In 2008, however, Masih’s work came to an abrupt halt, as the newly elected Pakistan People’s Party government placed an unofficial moratorium on executions. That measure remained in place until December 2014, when armed men stormed a Peshawar school, killing more than 150 people, most of them children.
The attack shocked the nation, and the government quickly lifted the moratorium, as a warning to members of armed groups such as the Pakistan Taliban, known by the acronym TTP, and others who had attacked both state and civilian targets in a war that has lasted since 2007.
Within a matter of hours, Masih was en route to Faisalabad from his native Lahore, to keep an appointment with two men convicted of “terrorism”.
“There were news reporters everywhere,” he says, recalling the crowd outside his home when the moratorium was lifted. “I sent a friend twice to go out and check … then I slipped out and went to Faisalabad.”
Since then, Pakistan has executed at least 471 people, according to the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Last year, it ranked fifth on Amnesty International’s list of worldwide executioners, putting at least 87 people to death. Almost all of those cases were in Punjab province, with Masih carrying out many of them.
“Why should I keep track? The jail keeps records. They have books to keep track of the black warrants,” he says.
Masih takes an uncomplicated approach to the question of whether the death penalty is justified.
“This is the law of our country, what am I meant to feel about it?” he asks. “It is nothing, it is just a job.”
Further probing on the subject seems to elicit annoyance, a mild irritation at questions he thinks miss the point of what he does for a living.
“It’s nothing. Only that minute or half a minute is urgent, when they are bringing the convict to be hanged. Other than that, it’s simple,” he says, detailing how he measures out the length of rope and ties the knot based on the height and weight of the convict.
Sometimes, he concedes, he gets it wrong.
“You’ll see a person’s body torn apart. I’ve done it many times.”
Masih speaks at an odd rhythm, as if just slightly out of time with the world around him. As he picks at his yellowing teeth with a matchstick, he complains that people seem to make more of his job than is warranted.
“For the person who is observing it being done, it seems a huge thing to do … but it’s easy, it’s not a big deal for me.”
“It’s nothing,” he repeats throughout our conversation.
Fair trial concerns, however, have dogged Pakistan’s justice system, and specifically its use of the death penalty, for years.
Last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted two brothers, Ghulam Qadir and Ghulam Sarwar, of murder, after they had spent more than 10 years on death row. The only problem? Qadir and Sarwar had both been executed at Bahawalpur’s central jail in October 2015.
Masih had pulled the lever.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he says, of when he heard the news of the acquittals. “If anyone is going to feel tension about it, it would be the jail superintendent, or the deputy, or the chief minister. I didn’t issue the black warrants, did I?
‘They’re finished from the inside’
In a sense, Masih concedes, he sees prisoners at their most intimate, in a moment where there are no longer any pretences.
“Yes, I see a face of theirs [that others do not],” he says. “At that time, they are crying. Either from the inside or the outside.”
Some, he says, ask for forgiveness – from him, from the jail superintendent, from anyone who will listen.
“They’re finished, from the inside. The convict who has done it, they know that they have to accept their fate.”
Others, however, exult in their deeds.
One execution that Masih says will always stay with him was that of two men convicted for facilitating a suicide attack on then Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf in 2004. They were hanged in December 2014.
“They came to me 12 minutes before their hanging. They were raising slogans, and greeting each other happily as if they were at Eid prayers. They said that they were bound for heaven,” he says.
“They accepted that they had done everything that they had been accused of. They were happy about it.”
What, then, does Masih see as the difference between himself and those men? Or, rather, between himself and all of the murderers that he has executed over the years? Is there one?
“What I do, it is different,” he says, emphatically. “I am killing people based on the law. The murderer has killed by their choice, but I am not killing by my own choice. On my side, I have the whole state, all the way to the president. I have not picked the convict to kill.