Saulat Mirza’s confession at the gate of the gallows has certainly jolted the political landscape of Sindh. It is also true that his confession is worth being investigated; the criminal element in Karachi has become too entrenched for the city to function peacefully, and the time to root out its patrons is here. But that does not mean the government can abandon all rules of legal procedure. What separates a democratic government from a despotic regime is the fact that procedure, due process and the constitution is followed, even if the result goes against the government’s objectives. So far the government has stretched the boundaries of legal rules in the name of executive expediency, but it must soon return to the letter of the law or risk becoming a despot is the eyes of the MQM and the public at large.

Despite his revelations regarding the MQM leader, the fact remains that he is guilty of murdering KESC chief Shahid Hamid, his driver Ashraf Brohi and guard Khan Akbar. A person’s confession or any other assistance to the prosecution can be a factor in mitigating his sentence during the trial, not when he has been convicted and certainly not when he is a few hours away from execution. Having exhausted all means of appeal a convict’s only option is presidential pardon or clemency – but that too has its limits. The presidential powers are reserved for people who have been wrongfully convicted or whose trial had flaws, like Shafqat Hussain’s, not for people who have helped the state achieve political goals. Furthermore, the president cannot indefinitely go on delaying the execution, he has to either grant a pardon or deny it. Nawaz Sharif’s request to the president to delay the execution for 30 additional days goes beyond the presidential powers envisioned by the framers of the constitution. Inventive judicial interpretation may justify this action, but as it stands, the delay is sustained only by executive orders, not law.

Such ad hoc behaviour delegitimizes the government, especially for the vast swathes of MQM supporters, who will see it as evidence of the state’s oppression. Saulat Mirza’s confession may be true and the basis of a legitimate investigation, but it came moments before he was set to be hanged; for the MQM supporters, the circumstances will surely seem suspicious, especially since the legal system has notorious abused the law to target political enemies of the state in the past. Delaying the executions for long or worse, converting his penalty into a death sentence would only confirm such suspicions. The state needs to walk the fine line between policy and principle; the investigation must be made promptly and the sentence should not be changed. Saulat Mirza remains a murderer.