Pakistan’s Hypocritical Season of Mercy

Published: July 17, 2015
The writer is a lawyer and the Pakistan Researcher for Human Rights Watch

The writer is a lawyer and the Pakistan Researcher for Human Rights Watch

Pakistan’s state executioners have taken a rare breather this past month after a death penalty spree that has killed 176 death row prisoners since the end of December 2014.

But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has made clear that the pause in that horrific body count is strictly temporary, until the conclusion of the holy month of Ramazan. His daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, praised the temporary suspension of executions as an act of reverence for “human dignity”. That was a welcome admission that the death penalty offends human dignity. But it comes as no comfort to the 8,000 people on death row in Pakistan who face execution as soon as the government’s death penalty suspension ends next week.

The Pakistani government’s death penalty spree has become a barbaric assembly-line. On March 17, Pakistan executed 12 people, the highest number of executions in a single day in almost a decade. The government broke that record on April 21 by executing at least 15 people that day.

Along with the use of military courts against civilians and coerced repatriations of Afghans living in Pakistan, these executions are part of the government’s response to the horrific December 16, 2014 attack by the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Tehreek-e-Taliban on a school in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan that left at least 148 dead — almost all of them children.

The government reacted by lifting a four-year unofficial death penalty moratorium for non-military personnel “in terrorism-related cases”. On March 10, the government lifted the death penalty moratorium for all capital crimes, including kidnapping and murder. The government’s motivations for its death penalty reinstatement have been a matter of populist pandering rather than pursuit of justice. In the province of Punjab alone, there are at least 62 people scheduled to be executed once the government’s Ramazan-imposed seasonal tolerance for “human dignity” comes to an end.

Those whose lives are at risk include Kaneezan Bibi, convicted of murder in January 1991. Despite compelling evidence that Bibi has a psychosocial disability, President Mamnoon Hussain rejected her mercy petition. Bibi is scheduled to be the ninth woman to be hanged in Pakistan’s history. Khizar Hayat is also scheduled for execution post-Ramazan, despite a 2008 diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. According to his lawyers, by 2012 Hayat had become so delusional that prison authorities isolated him from the general prison population by moving him to the prison hospital, where he has spent the last three years.

The looming execution of individuals with psychosocial disabilities is more than an affront to human dignity. It is an appalling violation of international human rights law, including obligations under the United Nations disability rights treaty, which Pakistan ratified in 2011. The UN Commission on Human Rights adopted resolutions in 1999 and 2000 urging countries that retain the death penalty not to impose it “on a person suffering from any form of mental disorder”. Section 84 of Pakistan’s Penal Code excludes from criminal punishment any person demonstrating “disorder of his mental capacities”.

Yet  another death row prisoner facing execution post-Ramazan is Shafqat Hussain,  who was allegedly 14- or 15-years-old when sentenced to death in 2004 for allegedly kidnapping and killing a seven-year-old boy. Hussain remains on death row despite compelling allegations that law-enforcement officers obtained his confession through torture. The Pakistani government’s death penalty spree has already involved multiple violations of the rights of those it has executed since December.

Take the case of Zulfiqar Ali, executed on January 13. Unable to afford a lawyer, the court-appointed lawyer who represented Ali never met with him once outside of court. Aftab Bahadur could also speak volumes for the Pakistan government’s disregard of human dignity. Bahadur was reportedly 15-years-old when convicted of murder in 1992. He maintained his innocence and said that he was prosecuted and convicted only because he was unable to afford a hefty bribe demanded by police who arrested him. He was executed on June 10, 2015.

Pakistan has ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically prohibit capital punishment of anyone who was under 18 at the time of the offence.

The prohibition is absolute. In July 2000, Pakistan issued a Juvenile Justice System Ordinance banning the death penalty for crimes by people under 18. However, the ordinance requires the existence of dedicated juvenile courts and other mechanisms not provided for by law in all parts of Pakistan, leaving juvenile offenders at risk of trial as adults in capital cases.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has an obligation to safeguard the fundamental rights of the citizens of Pakistan, particularly their right to life. He should do so by immediately reinstating an indefinite death penalty moratorium and move towards abolition. For inspiration, he can reflect on the words of Aftab Bahadur in a letter published hours before his execution. Bahadur wrote, “While the death penalty moratorium was ended on the pretext of killing terrorists, most of the people here in Kot Lakhpat prison are charged with regular crimes. Quite how killing them is going to stop the sectarian violence in this country, I cannot say. I hope I do not die on Wednesday, but I have no source of money, so I can only rely on God and on my volunteer lawyers. I have not given up hope, though the night is very dark.”

The government of Pakistan has a choice. It can act to defend fundamental human rights and consign the death penalty to the dustbin of history. Or it can end this brief season of “human dignity” and condemn Kaneezan Bibi, Khizar Hayat and thousands of others to the darkness of a vindictive death penalty policy with no end in sight.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2015.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Uzair
    Jul 17, 2015 - 11:28PM

    Thank you Saroop for raising this important topic. Leaving aside the morality of the death penalty (I am opposed to it primarily on the grounds of state murder of innocent people wrongfully convicted – once killed you can not bring back the person), how many terrorists has the government actually killed by use of the death penalty?

    It doesn’t require too much common sense to ask what the relation is between the normal judicial process and the fight against terrorists.Recommend

  • Parvez
    Jul 18, 2015 - 12:13AM

    We are a very imperfect society……in a imperfect world. Most on the list deserve to be hanged, yes there must be exceptions like the ones you mentioned but to use them as an excuse to stop what badly needed and now needs to be done, is wrong.Recommend

  • Strategic Asset
    Jul 18, 2015 - 12:35AM

    @Author: Amen.Recommend

  • xenia
    Jul 18, 2015 - 1:15AM

    We are in this state just due to the pseudo intellectuals selling their useless commodity i.e. Human Rights. West has imposed ban on death penalty however they never stop killing millions for oil and their weapons trade. I am sure people who write against death penalty, in the hearts of their of heart praise the establishment of military courts due to the corrupt and inefficient judicial structure in place. Recommend

  • Ali S
    Jul 18, 2015 - 1:35AM

    I’m not against the death penalty per se but I do agree that our justice system needs to be thoroughly reformed before it’s implemented. Also, a very small number of those executed were for terror cases – and that’s a frightening sign whichever way you look at it.Recommend

  • bhola
    Jul 18, 2015 - 1:47AM

    While there are pitfalls in our judicial system, there is no justification for not having a capital punishment for heinous crimes these people choose to commit. Now pay. Punishment is a deterrent for other members of the society, and capital punishment works.Recommend

  • numbersnumbers
    Jul 18, 2015 - 4:39AM

    The problem that the author avoids talking about is What to do with those who deserve the maximum punishment INSTEAD!
    For example, Mumtaz Qadri should have been hung months ago, but instead was accommodated extensive special privileges in jail, eventually influencing a guard to murder another Pakistani in another jail who was charged with Blasphemy!
    (Dear Author, as an example, please tell us what to do with Mumtaz Qadri???)Recommend

  • ajeet
    Jul 18, 2015 - 8:41AM

    The deep state is punishing the secularists so that it’s Sunni proxies have free run.Recommend

  • wb
    Jul 18, 2015 - 8:45AM

    Death penalty is a part and parcel of Sharia. Where it is applicable maybe debatable. But death penalty itself is not debatable.

    If Pakistan truly wants to be an Islamic nation, then death penalty comes with it.Recommend

  • Harris
    Jul 18, 2015 - 6:58PM

    Your own analysis explains that the problem lies in ascertaining the validity of evidence and consequent challenges in prosecution. However, your conclusion is to let go of death penalty. Even your western ideals view death penalty as a strong deterrent for heinous crimes. Or else, we can have an anarchist state where everyone can get away with anything and the worst consequence they can face is to have free food and accommodation in recreational facilities. Recommend

  • Pakistani
    Jul 18, 2015 - 7:33PM

    Mr Saroop there are two segments on which your whole argument is based. One is “Human Dignity” and “Fundamental Rights”. Both are only valid for the state and not for those innocent people who were killed and as a result culprits are awarded death sentence. As of so Called “Human Rights” there is unparalleled respect that is given by Islam to these rights and if death penalty remains there than how our pronouncement of these rights is better for Human society. It is not those convicted (Rightly or Wrongly) who should be spared but Judicial process that award them should be thoroughly overhauled to address possibility such injustices. Recommend

  • Anon
    Jul 19, 2015 - 4:57PM

    The word hypocrisy is ironic here…. Because this is the same author that has been calling for military operations, defending drone strikes and generally asking for no holds barred against “suspected militants”…

    Now that the state has taken up executions of people who have been through some process (deeply flawed though it is) his sensitivities are disturbed!

    Is he suggesting that bombs and drone operators are able to carry out a complete pscyh analysis of their targets before killing them? This is the hypocrisy which is even more troubling….the need to pander to buzzwords like the inhumanity of the death penalty while asking for military operations in civilian areas…Recommend

  • Anonymus
    Jul 19, 2015 - 5:32PM

    What country hangs the most people ?
    Kingdom of Saudi Arabia …umbilical cord for many things..
    Has crimes in that country stopped? No. if that country has percapita income like this in this day and age and their rated should have been manytimes higher than despite harsh punishments.
    Problem in our country is different when terror is our weapon and not the logic
    Saroop it was really nice to read you after some break, eid mubark to you.Recommend

  • Ahmad Imran
    Jul 19, 2015 - 10:54PM

    @Uzair: Firstly majority Convicted were terrorists and one or two may be Innocent but fail to prove it. Either way this should be no reason to stop the death Penalty. Are we starting to Develop Sympathies for the Culprits and apathy for the Victims?Recommend

  • Ahmed Obaid
    Jul 20, 2015 - 9:15AM

    Mr Saroop Ijaz, it is highly illogical to corroborate the idea of respecting human dignity for those, who have killed scores of human beings themselves. We have become so shameless society that we condemn terrorist acts; we raise our voices for stern actions and when that time comes, our liberals backed by their financiers from the West raise their voices for human dignity while totally neglecting its impact. Recommend

  • Ahimsa
    Jul 20, 2015 - 2:46PM

    Wonderful article which will not be understood or appreciated by most people. This is the 4th interesting information on prisoners etc. that I gleaned yesterday – the first is the Stanford Prison experiment (in the NY Times) ; the second was the finding that the US case Roe v/s Wade which permitted abortions lead in turn to the huge drop in crime rates 15-20 years later (Freakonomics movie on Netflix) and the third (also from the NY times) was about a group that takes care of prisoners doing their 20-25 years for the absurd 3-strikes law of the USA. Great going Mr. Ijaz! Recommend

  • SK
    Jul 21, 2015 - 10:02AM

    Sir , but I am yet to witness a single real terrorist who killed ,maimed or plotted against the country , causing massive lost to human lives being hanged. Except on one occasion when attackers of Ex President Mr Musharaf were hanged. Recommend

  • Rex Minor
    Jul 21, 2015 - 12:39PM

    Though shall not kill is God’s commandment and Pakistan present leadership should be aware of this when they casualy drop in Mecca for worship. From the comments one sees that the enlightened author is one of the few and in minority in the land where the devil has the upperhand.

    Rex Minor Recommend

  • ishrat salim
    Jul 22, 2015 - 6:35PM

    Conclusion from the author`s perspective, revamp of our judicial system, then no military court needed, but un-fortunately, it is our own judiciary which acts as an obstacle to improve, yet fighting to reverse it. Having said that, it is most unfortunate, where in some of convicts of death penalty need to be reviewed, Allah swt will never forgive us if the person has been wrongly punished. We cannot & will not get away by saying that ” to err is human”, no Sir no. If as the author has pointed out, there are sick people on death row, their case need to be reviewed with compassion & released on humanitarian ground. Such action happens all over the world. Recommend

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