What the reinstatement of the death penalty entails

Published: December 18, 2014


KARACHI: The first policy proposal from the government as a response to Tuesday’s Peshawar school attack has been to remove the moratorium on the death penalty, in place since 2008.

But the reinstatement of the death penalty applies to only those convicted in terror-related incidents, which means 30%t of the 8,261 prisoners, around 2,500, who are currently on death row may yet be executed.

Many support the moratorium, not least because of the immense outcry against the attack in Peshawar, which killed 141 people, and the public’s demand for immediate justice against the culprits. For many, it would a symbolic move away from the militancy that significant elements of society had previously tolerated, if not coddled. It is also hoped that the reinstatement of the death penalty would deter potential recruits from engaging in militancy.

Since then, the government has already received 120 mercy appeals, and dismissed 17 of them, paving the way for their execution. “Their death warrants will be issued and their relatives will be called in to have their last meeting with the 17 militants,” sources in the prime minister’s office told The Express Tribune.  The government should perhaps consider some other aspects of this decision, which has tremendous ramifications for its fight against militancy, and law and order.

1.       The state will make mistakes

There are many things wrong with Pakistan’s judicial system, and those inherent problems will make the successful prosecution and conviction of prisoners difficult. So many prisoners are falsely convicted with circumstantial evidence, unreliable witnesses and generally shoddy investigative work.

Alternatively, the judicial system is also flawed in that many individuals with strong cases against them do not get convicted. Just today, an anti-terrorism court granted bail to Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks in 2008.

This case is in no way unique. Government officials struggle to convict militants once they are arrested because of the difficulty in gathering enough strong evidence. With capital punishment sentences in particular, the prosecution needs to be water-tight, which even in countries like the United States, which also has the death penalty, is rarely ever the case.

There is the additional risk that if the government’s ‘good Taliban, bad Taliban’ policy continues despite Nawaz’s claims, it may also extend to the judicial system, where Taliban militants will more likely be executed, and other groups may not. Assuming that selective justice is not justice, capital punishment requires for the state to maintain a hostile approach to all militants.

2.       It may not deter militants

The militants that killed those children in Peshawar are now dead, and that was part of the plan. Each militant had wired explosives to their bodies as they entered the school; none of them had any ideas of leaving the premises with their lives.

In fact, the advent of suicide bombers has turned the general understanding about crime and punishment on its head. How can the state ‘punish’ militants with death when the militants themselves see it as reward or shahadat? It seems unlikely that death by hanging may be a more frightening process in contrast to blowing one’s self up.

3.       It risks reprisal attacks

While politicians may not admit it, one of the reasons the moratorium has held in place is because of the reprisal attacks that may take place if the prisoners are executed.

With the possibility of 17 executions “in the next few days” and many more to come, the government will be opening itself to more reprisal attacks from the groups that prisoners belong to.

If both the military and civilian leadership are willing to fight militancy “on all fronts”, and if that includes executing those sentenced, then it should expect more attacks like the one in Peshawar. This means greater security in prisons since it is likely they will be increasingly targeted. The Bannu prison break in 2012 shows how vulnerable the state can be to militant attacks on prisons across the country. It must be better prepared this time round.

4.       It risks isolation and trade

Nawaz’s signature campaign promise was to improve Pakistan’s economy, and he followed up by winning the coveted GSP Plus status, allowing Pakistan to send exports to the European Union. But that might be jeopardised by the reinstatement of the death penalty, frowned upon by the EU.

Last year, an EU human rights delegation said that it would be a “major setback” if Pakistan restarted hangings. That “setback” is not just restricted to the GSP Plus deal; most international summits including the UN (but not the OIC) reiterate their distaste for the death penalty, and the fact that Pakistan has not executed anyone in last five years (save for one military execution) has been a positive for Pakistan internationally. Pakistan risks losing those diplomatic and economic gains


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Reader Comments (6)

  • Shuaib
    Dec 18, 2014 - 8:20PM

    Reprisal attacks? We no longer care about that. Reprisal attacks only strengthen our resolve against these militants. Also the death penalty will effectively give them a bigger deterrent.


  • Rex Minor
    Dec 18, 2014 - 11:40PM

    Unless and Untill the grand mufti of AlAzhar does not a give a fatwa, upholding Gods commandment of “Though shall not kill” , the muslim countries will continue including Pakistan. to have a killing spree bringing all their efforts in prayers and other jurisprudence null and void as the scriptures stipulate. If the European Union does not impose instant sanctions, I as a citizen will not purchase or consume any product from Pakistan.

    Rex Minor.


  • csmann
    Dec 19, 2014 - 12:23AM

    @Rex Minor:
    Do you expect it from Mufti’s.They are the ones who encourage murder for political and religious fanaticism.They don’t have the commandments applying to “Jihadis”. These clerics have so many exceptions to the said commandments.So the Pakistani Government should have exceptions to moratorium.Terrorists require special treatment and that is what most Pakistanis feel.People who have reservation can boycott Pakistan if they so wish.But execution of terrorists is the need of the hour.


  • HK
    Dec 19, 2014 - 4:37AM

    @Rex Minor: hi, you are more than welcome to not buy our products. We are in a state of war against extremist and brutal killers wiping our future out.

    And hanging the masterminds of this brutality is the least we can do, so you buying or not buying what we produce is not on our list of priority right now! Apologies.


  • Ali
    Dec 19, 2014 - 3:21PM

    Maybe you will care if it is you or your loved ones who is hit next time. Human life is more important than rhetoric and the death penalty simply does not work.


  • S.R.H. Hashmi
    Dec 19, 2014 - 9:05PM

    I would answer the matters raised by the writer point-by-point :

    The state will make mistakes.
    The state made a blatant mistake in the past by not dealing with the matter with the urgency and resolve it deserved. It is now trying to make up for it, at least in part, and the endeavour should be welcome. The writer has himself claimed that due to flawed judicial system, many individuals with strong cases against them do not get convicted. One of these is the fear of retaliation by the accomplices of the accused, which prevents many witnesses to give evidence against them. In these circumstances, if some criminal gets convicted and is given death sentence, he would be much more than a deserving candidate for execution. He also claims that because of adverse publicity, Taliban may be more like to get death sentences as compared to others, and this would make the justice ‘selctive’ which would be no justice at all. In such cases, the right approach would be to suggest improvement in the system so that persons with equal guilt receive equal punishment, instead of recommending the spare the Taliban. And what about innocent people that these criminals murder indiscriminately? Don’t they deserve some protection. One gentleman was recently on tv complaining about the wastage of taxes paid by him on these beasts by continuing to feed them.

    It may not deter militants
    It is a fact that threat of death sentence will not deter would-be suicide bombers. However, suicide bombers form only a tiny fraction of the total terrorist force. The vast majority of terrorists do fear death and that is why they escape from the territories under attack by military and law enforcers, even moving over to Afghanistan, and convicted terrorists’ escape from the prisons in not exactly unheard of. Sometime back, a few hundred hardened criminals escaped from Bannu jail. Also, recently an escape attempt from Karachi jail was thwarted by law enforcers. Companions of the jailed convicts had already dug a 25 metre tunnel and had just another 10 metres to dig to achieve their objective. Executing the convicts eliminates the risk of their escaping from the prison and repeating their performance.

    It risks reprisal attacks.
    The five years during which there has been a moratorium on executions (exception being a soldier) were not exactly those of peace and tranquility. And attacks by terrorists are not always retaliatory. Now, what does the Hazara community in Balochistan do to deserve the brutal attacks they get, and they are not the only lnes who suffer. In any case, it would be improper not to punish the culprits because of fear of retaliation by their accomplices.

    It risk isolation and trade.
    We are going through a terrible phase and the European Union leaders should appreciate our peculiar situation instead of imposing their standards on us blindly. If we reach the virtually heinous-crime-free state that many of the EU countries enjoy, perhaps there could be some justification for penalizing Pakistan for executing the convicts. However, punitive action against Pakistan in the circumstances that we are facing would be very unfair, and very unreasonable. Also, seeing what some EU countries like Britain and France did to Iraq and Libya, destabilizing the countries and causing death of hundreds of thousands of innocent, without facing even minor punitive action, it would be very unreasonable to punish Pakistan for executing ruthless murderers. In any cases, if things continued the way they are, we would not be able to produce much to export. I would think that a reasonable approach would be to hold back the punitive measures for five years, and review the situation then, taking into consideration the conditions prevailing at that time.



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