ISLAMABAD, Sept 1: The moratorium on executions, which was imposed by the previous PPP led government in 2008 and lifted recently, has sparked off a debate on the death penalty while also revealing the lack of awareness available on the lengthy legal procedure that kicks into place once a man or woman is condemned.
This came to light when the Senate Standing Committee on Interior took up the issue on August 27, 2013.
A senator had asked which authority issues the death warrant and the answer was the relevant trial court which could either be the session court or the anti-terrorism court that has awarded the death sentence.This death warrant is commonly known as the ‘black warrant’.
The question was asked because a moratorium imposed by the federal government in 2008 was lifted recently by the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) government. However, after a brief gap of two months, which started in the last week of June 2013, the ban was re-imposed in August when three convicted terrorists were to be hanged.
It was against this background that the senator had asked the initial question and the answer provided by the Interior ministry led to a general discussion and more questions.
A participating senator asked the interior ministry officials present how the session courts or the relevant ATC found out that the appeal of the condemned prisoner had been dismissed by the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan in order to issue the back warrant.
A number of prisoners, who are condemned to death, appeal to the higher courts against their convictions – and the senators were interested in finding out who kept track of appeals filed and rejected in order to then finally kick-start the process of implementing the conviction once the appeals had been exhausted.
Under the current law, anybody awarded a death sentence by a lower court can appeal at the high court in seven days. If the appeal is dismissed by the high court, the convict has 60 days to approach the SC.
The final authority, however, to waive off the death sentence is the president of the country and a mercy petition can be forwarded to the president after the death sentence is awarded by any court.
In addition, one senator also wanted to know if the interior ministry had informed all the Sessions Courts during the period the moratorium was lifted so that they could issue the black warrants.
The officials incorrectly informed the parliamentarians that the registrar of the apex court informs the relevant High Courts and the information is passed to the session court of the ATC, so that the black warrant(s) can be issued.
The officials of the Law Ministry talking to Dawn contradicted this.
“The interior ministry people are either ignorant or they were not speaking the truth,” the official said, adding that the session court or the ATC are approached by the prosecutor general office of the concerned province for issuance of the black warrant.
“But I am not clear how the home department of the province will find out that the appeal of a condemned prisoner has been rejected by the Supreme Court?” the official added.
He was not the only one.
Even the spokesman of the interior ministry was not clear on how the home department would find out that a prisoner’s mercy petition had been rejected by the president of country or his appeal against his sentence had been rejected by the SC.
Conversations with various officials revealed the ignorance prevalent.
One official said, “The moratorium will never be lifted so there is no need to find out about the procedure to obtain the black warrants,” while another claimed that it was the responsibility of the jail superintendent to get the black warrant.
Inspector General Prisons, Sindh, Nusrat Mangan said the jail authorities were on the operational side of the whole episode and hence were not concerned with the legal or administrative proceedings.
“The routine procedure is that the black warrants are issued by the session court or ATC – however before implementing the warrant, we intimate the home department,” he added.
The IG prisons explained that the executions were carried out by the authorities early in the morning - prior to the Fajr aazan.
“The kin of the condemned prisoner is informed and the execution is carried out in the presence of the local magistrate,” he said.
Fortunately Sadaqat Ali Khan, Prosecutor General Punjab, finally provided the answers that had evaded the federal government officials.
“All four provinces have representation in the SC in the shape of the office of the Advocate General while the deputy prosecutor general of all provinces also appear regularly there,” Mr Khan said, adding, “Whenever there is any such development, the deputy prosecutor general gets all the details and documents, and forwards it to the home department of his province.”
This is how, he said, the home department comes to know that the final appeal of certain condemned prisoner has been rejected by the apex court. At the High Court level, lawyers from the office of the prosecutor general are aware of appeals filed and rejected.
Once the appeals process are complete, the officials of the prosecutor branch of the home department, in coordination with the relevant jail authority, then approach the relevant session court/ATC to obtain the black warrant.
“The hanging date is set in consultation with the relevant jail authority, as there are chances that the sentence has been awarded by a court in one district, while the prisoner might be housed in a jail located in a different district,” Mr Khan said.
“However, implementation of the death sentence is carried out according to the government policies and can be stopped at the last moment as it has been done recently.”
In the 50 days that the moratorium had been lifted, Sindh and Punjab were found to be the most active with death row prisoners.
Punjab issued black warrants to around 26 condemned prisoners, which mainly included criminals and no terrorist.
Sindh was scheduled to execute four condemned prisoners last week in Central Prisons Karachi and Sukkur.
The information available from the IG Prisons office says that of these four, two - Attaullah alias Qasim and Mohammad Azam alias Sharif - belonged to the banned group Lashkar-i-Jhangvi. These two were to be executed on August 20 and 21, 2013 respectively.
The other two condemned prisoners were ordinary criminals.
However, the federal government has stopped the executions until further orders.