Just deserts: Lawyers oppose death penalty reprieve

NGO encounters hostile audience at workshop for defence lawyers.

Rana Tanveer April 14, 2011


The Pakistani legal fraternity demonstrated their support for capital punishment on Wednesday, at the forum of a two-day workshop for defence lawyers in death penalty cases.

The Second Annual Death Penalty Defence Conference at the Punjab Bar Council organised by Reprieve, a British charity that helps condemned prisoners, aimed to train criminal lawyers handling murder trials and to discuss steps a lawyer can take to protect his client from a death sentence.

But when Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer who has handled hundreds of death penalty cases in America and founded Reprieve, asked the audience of 300 or so lawyers to raise their hands if they were opposed to capital punishment, only four hands were raised.

None of the Pakistani speakers from the legal community spoke out against the death sentence. Aslam Masih, a Pakistani Christian who spoke about his experience on death row, was met with a barrage of harsh questions, shouted from the audience, when he suggested that all death sentences be converted to 25-year prison terms.

“What about the bereaved families?” one audience member shouted out. Masih responded that spending 25 years in prison was no picnic. “But he will still be alive,” the lawyer shouted back. Masih was eventually compelled to leave the microphone after he was drowned out by the rowdy audience.

Host Sara Belal had to make repeated announcements during the question-answer session for the audience to remain calm when putting their questions forward.

Smith said in his talk that though Pakistan was ranked 87th in the world in terms of violent incidents, it topped the list in handing out the death penalty. He asked people to raise their hands against the death penalty, but got a negligible response.

Smith said a lawyer’s job was to ensure justice to the powerless. He said the defence lawyer must redress the balance, as the defendant already had the odds stacked up against him. He advised lawyers to focus on the unique elements of their client’s story. “Nothing is impossible in a capital case, even if it has never been done before,” he said. Asked about Raymond Davis, he said he would not defend him as a lawyer. He said that the trial of Dr Aafia Siddiqi by an American court was unfair.

Justice (retired) Fazal Karim spoke about the fundamental rights of prisoners guaranteed by the Constitution and encouraged defence lawyers to seek innovative remedies. He said lawyers should be engaged at the investigation stage of a case, for often it was too late for the accused by the prosecution stage. He said nothing against the death penalty, but suggested that blasphemy cases be referred to a judicial magistrate and police be excluded from such cases.

Advocate Hashim Qadir Shah delivered a presentation about the offences which carry the death sentence in Pakistan. These include 18 types of offence in the Pakistan Penal Code, and treason (under Article 6 of the Constitution), terrorism (Section 7 of the Anti Terrorism Act), drug smuggling (under the Narcotics Substance Act) and adultery (under the Hudood laws).

Denny LeBoeuf, a member of Reprieve who represents several Guantanamo Bay inmates, discussed mitigating circumstances which a lawyer can use to argue for a lesser sentence. She said lawyers should get their clients medically examined, since there were various conditions – such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression  that could be a powerful mitigating circumstance.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 14th, 2011.

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