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