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Pakistani Prison A 'Sweltering Hell'

  • Abubakar Siddique

The thought of spending a summer locked up in Pakistan's Dera Ismail Khan Prison sparks fear in even the most-hardened criminal.

Those who have stayed there simply call it a "sweltering hell" -- a moniker earned for the suffocating conditions prisoners must endure during the hot summer months.

The 70-year-old prison, one of the largest in the country's northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, was built to house some of the country's most-notorious criminals.

Abdul Ghafoor, a senior local police officer, says that when it was constructed in the 1940s it was located on the outskirts of Dera Ismail Khan. Today the red brick and concrete facility is located in the center of a city of half a million, and finds itself in the limelight after the Taliban carried out a prison break that freed about 250 inmates late on July 29.

"The prison has two walls around it. The outer wall served merely as a perimeter wall outlining the limits of the prison. It was not very strong and was not much of an obstacle," Ghafoor says. "But the inner wall, around the actual prison cells, was tough. The terrorists, however, broke through it by hitting its [massive iron] doors with rockets, which killed the guards."

The facility houses an extensive workshop area where prisoners sentenced to "hard labor" engage in carpentry, masonry, and other crafts.

The prison has a capacity of 1,600 inmates, but only 483 prisoners were present at the time of the attack on July 29.

The prison is known for jailing troublesome opposition politicians, but Ghafoor says it's the summer heat that gives the prison its reputation.

"In Dera Ismail Khan, temperatures during summer average around 46 or 47 degrees Celsius," he notes. "This city is located on the banks of the Indus River and is the last district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa" on the borders of Punjab and Balochistan provinces.

Ghafoor says that of the prisoners who escaped on July 29, about 20 were on death row or serving life sentences under Pakistan's antiterrorism laws. He lists three who stand out as dangerous figures: Waleed Akbar, Ahmad Nawaz Dallu, and Fazal Mujahid.

The three were each serving 1,400-year sentences for orchestrating a string of bombings last year that killed scores of Shi'ite worshipers in Dera Ismail Khan. The city has a history of attacks carried out by Sunni extremists against the Shi'ite minority and is located close to South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold.

The Dera Ismail Khan jailbreak was the second major one in Pakistan in the past 18 months. In April 2012, the Taliban launched a large-scale assault on a prison in the city of Bannu, some 90 kilometers north of Dera Ismail Khan.

That attack freed nearly 400 prisoners, including some prominent Taliban leaders.
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