Punjab set to oppose abolition of death penalty

Published: October 2, 2010
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Executions were put on hold till December 2010 by President Zardari.

Executions were put on hold till December 2010 by President Zardari.

LAHORE: The Punjab government has decided to oppose the conversion of capital punishment into life imprisonment, contending that it would create lawlessness, lead to frequent occurrence of heinous crimes and proliferation of hired assassins.

Ending the death penalty, the provincial government claims, is also against Islamic injunctions, a Punjab home department official told The Express Tribune.

Executions were put on hold till December 2010 by President Asif Ali Zardari after he took over as the head of state in September 2008. The last condemned prisoner – a former soldier who had killed a colonel and his family – was hanged in November, 2008, in the Central Jail, Rawalpindi.

According to Article 45 of the Constitution, the president can use his discretionary power to hear clemency petitions and pardon an accused awaiting execution.

In July, 2008, the federal cabinet adopted a proposal calling for suspending execution on death sentences of around 7,000 condemned prisoners across the country.

Earlier, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had asked  then President Pervez Musharraf to convert all death sentences into life imprisonments as “a tribute” to the slain PPP leader, Benazir Bhutto, on her birth anniversary falling on June 21, 2008. The initiative, however, failed to take off after the then Supreme Court Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar took suo motu action.

Despite the withholding of death penalties through an executive order, the government decided to abolish capital punishment altogether.

Farooq H Naik, the then law minister, was assigned the task to review various laws under which capital punishment is awarded. He said that a review bill would be ready by mid-November, 2008, and parliament would approve it by the end of the same month. The minister submitted a summary for removing the death penalty from the Pakistan Penal Code to the prime minister.

When the move evoked a massive negative reaction on the streets and in parliament, the federal government decided to get provincial governments’ feedback.

In its reply to be sent to the federal government, Punjab government said that death penalty should be supported as a matter of justice and human dignity. The penalty, it says, must be proportionate to the seriousness of crimes.

Non-execution, it says, is tantamount to increase in murder and related crimes of serious nature, rendering state and society unprotected.

The Punjab government contends that data also supports its contention that crime rate has drastically increased because of too much leniency: more and more people are being murdered, raped, assaulted, kidnapped, and robbed without any fear of punishment.

In Punjab, the reported number of crimes in 1999 was 263,490. This figure rose to 344,561 (a 31 per cent increase) by the end of 2007. It finally reached 383,383 in 2009, showing an increase of 11 per cent over the past two years. A comparison of figures for 2009 with 1999 shows an increase of 45.5 per cent in incidence of crimes.

According to the Punjab government, common sense supports the inference that in the face of decreased threat of death penalty, the rate of murders and heinous crimes increases. The reverse also holds true, it says: if the threat increases, the homicide rate decreases.

During the tenure of former president General (retd) Pervez Musharraf, the execution of condemned prisoners was at the top of agenda in a bid to combat heinous crimes and deter criminals, an official said.

During the tenure of the previous government, the execution of condemned prisoners in gang rapes, murders, kidnappings for ransom and incidents of sectarianism and terrorism were given top priority, conveying a strong message that “crimes do not go unpunished”, he added.

The Punjab government has hanged 426 condemned prisoners over the past seven years, including 22 in 2002, 31 in 2003, 28 in 2004, 66 in 2005 and 90 in 2006, 159 in 2007 and 30 in 2008 when all executions were stayed.

The question of conversion of capital punishment cropped up for the first time in Pakistan’s legal history when the then president converted a number of death sentences to life imprisonment in 1988.

According to a Supreme Court judgment: “The president… had no such power to commute death sentences awarded in matters of Hudood, Qisas and Diyat Ordinance.”

Challenging the president’s powers to grant pardons under Article 45 in Tazir cases, the Punjab government is of the view that the power to pardon in such cases rests only with heirs of the deceased. Therefore, the president had no power to commute, remit or pardon such sentences.

Under Tazir laws, the head of state can only grant pardon to offenders in public interest.

In light of judgments and principles of the Holy Book as laid down in the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance, there is no such power or legislation by which to commute the death sentences awarded in matters of Hudood, Qisas and Diyat, the Punjab government maintained.

Former president Musharraf accepted just one mercy petition, that of Mirza Tahir, a British national of Pakistani origin who was awarded death sentence on charges of murdering a taxi driver. He was sent back on the request of the United Kingdom government, an interior ministry official said.

Asad Warriach, superintendent of jail, said condemned prisoners, whose execution orders were not implemented, have become a source of headache for jail managements because they could not be kept apart from ordinary prisoners because of a lack of infrastructure facilities.

The stay on executions has created a psychological problem for them (the prisoners) as well: some of them have committed suicide in the recent past.

He says that prisoners who have completed between 12 and 14 years in jails also create trouble for the jail staff.

A police officer, who asked not to be named, said some of the condemned prisoners were operating gangs outside the jails as they had no fear of execution and with the hope of being released sooner or later. Most of them, he said, are members of banned organisations.

As many as 53,768 prisoners are held in 32 jails in Punjab, including 53,063 men and 705 women. Of the total, 6,082 are condemned prisoners, including 27 women. The highest number of condemned prisoners can be seen in the Lahore district jail – 4,531. Appeals of 4,500 condemned prisoners are pending in the high court, 1,300 in the Supreme Court, while appeals of 40 prisoners are pending in the Federal Shariat Court. Mercy petitions of 242 condemned prisoners are pending with the president since November, 2008.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 2nd, 2010.

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