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Death penalty in Pakistan being used as political tool, researchers say

Updated July 06, 2017

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Death penalty has not deterred crime, report claims. - File
Death penalty has not deterred crime, report claims. - File

The death penalty in Pakistan is exceedingly used as a political tool, research conducted by the Justice Project Pakistan has found. Pakistan’s use of the death penalty has failed to deter crime and curb terrorism, it claims.

According to the research, until May 2017, a total of 465 prisoners had been sent to the gallows since Pakistan lifted the moratorium on executions in December 2014. This makes Pakistan the fifth most prolific executioner in the world, following China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the report says.

Punjab has emerged as the overwhelming practitioner of the death penalty, accounting for 83 per cent of executions, and 89pc of death sentences. However, it has witnessed only a 9.7pc drop in murder rates from 2015-2016.

Sindh, on the other hand, has viewed a drop of nearly 25pc in murders over the same time period — even though it carried out only 18 executions compared to Punjab’s 382.

In fact, murder rates in Pakistan were already in decline before the moratorium was lifted, casting even more doubt on the already dubious relationship between the death penalty and reducing crime, the Justice Project says.

Some more facts from the report include:

  • Pakistan has executed an average of 3.5 prisoners a week since lifting the moratorium in Dec 2014

  • Punjab accounts for 83pc of the 465 executions that have taken place from Dec 2014 – May 2017

  • Sindh has shown the greatest drop in murder rates, but accounts for only 4pc of executions

  • Executions increase noticeably in the weeks following terrorist attacks in Punjab

  • In Punjab, as the number of prisoners held beyond prison capacity increases, so does the number of executions

A closer look at yearly trends of executions shows that Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATC) accounted for only 16pc of executions, the Justice Project says. In 2015, 65 people tried by ATCs were hanged, but that figure dropped to eight from Jan 2016 to May 2017. The majority of death sentences that have been carried out in that time have come from district and sessions courts, which do not have jurisdiction over terrorism cases.

The government has sought to justify lifting the moratorium for all 27 death-eligible crimes by claiming it is necessary to deter terrorist threats to Pakistan. However, data indicates that the government is mostly hanging terrorists through military courts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and through ATCs in Sindh, according to the Justice Project.

Another trend that has emerged is that the number of executions spike in the wake of a terrorist attack, especially in Punjab. This indicates that the use of executions, like the lifting of the moratorium, is often a reactionary step, according to the researchers.

In Punjab, there is another worrying trend that indicates that executions are being used as a means to make room in prisons that are facing overcrowding. Currently, 25 of the 27 prisons in the province house more prisoners than their capacity and the highest number of executions take place in the most overcrowded prisons.

Pakistan heads for its first UN review under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) next week on July 11, which obligates it to uphold and respect the right to life for all its citizens. Pakistan’s return to an executing state has been taken up in the list of issues framed by the Human Rights Council committee.

In just one year after the moratorium was lifted, execution warrants for the mentally ill, physically disabled and juvenile offenders have been issued. More and more cases of wrongful executions have come to light since then.

In October last year, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers in Bahawalpur after they spent 11 years on death row, only to find they had already been executed the year before.

Another prisoner was found innocent a year after he had been found dead in his cell. There are likely many more cases like this, considering a condemned prisoner will spend an average of 11 years on death row, the Justice Project fears.

“Pakistan’s troubling and continued use of the death penalty has continuously fallen short of meeting its international human rights commitments and fair trial standards, as well as our own domestic laws,” says Sarah Belal, executive director of the Justice Project.

“The death penalty is not an effective tool to curb militancy and crime, as the data clearly shows, yet has been increasingly used for political gain.

"It is time for the stakeholders to commit to genuine reform in our criminal justice system, and until they do so, to restore the moratorium on the death penalty.”