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The politics of killing

More than accountability, the death penalty in Pakistan is part business and part politics.
Updated Jul 12, 2017 02:18pm

Bill Clinton left the Presidential Campaign trail in January 1992 and rushed backed to his home state of Arkansas to preside over the execution of a mentally disabled, black man as the Governor. No law required him to be back for the execution to take place.

However, as a democratic party candidate, perceived to be “soft” on crime and in the middle of a scandal with a woman named Gennifer Flowers, Clinton felt the need to not only go through with the execution, but to make a public spectacle of it. Ricky Ray Rector, the executed individual had lost one third of his brain and saved the pecan pie from his last meal to have later.

The politics of the death penalty, like the death penalty itself, is ugly and violent. Clinton went on to win the Presidential nomination, and the election, and later found himself in the middle of another scandal with a woman named Monica Lewinsky and with no human sacrifice to offer this time.

Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) has recently come up with excellent and chilling research on the business of death penalty in the country. Pakistan has executed 465 people since December 2014 at a rate of 3.5 per week. Punjab has accounted for 382 judicial killings and has seen a drop of 9.7pc drop in the murder rate, compared to Sindh’s 18 executions and a 25pc dip in the murder rate. That is all there is to the deterrence argument.

However, resumption of executions post the Army Public School was never about deterrence. Only 16pc of those executed were convicted by anti-terrorism courts. Threatening would be or failed suicide bombers with the deterrence of the death penalty? It was about looking “tough” in the face of failure and tragedy.

It was not about retribution either; executing people convicted of non-terrorist related cases in the state’s custody for a decade was not about avenging the blood of our children. The APS tragedy was too horrific, too chilling even by our heartless standards however the response was the bureaucratic principle of publicly lunging at the lowest hanging, and in this case toxic, fruit. The complex security challenges owing to years of misguided policies and a dysfunctional criminal justice system ignored for decades cannot be solved by executive orders, and don’t make pithy breaking news.

The argument for lifting the moratorium was vengeance, not necessarily on the perpetrators of terrorist attacks, but on anyone in reach. It was the government’s declaration of being willing to inflict violence and most of the 465 people killed, like Ricky Ray Rector, just happened to be on death row at the wrong time. Also, like Rector, they were poor and marginalised, the ideal fodder for the fragile masculinity of the leaders desperate to prove “toughness.”

Sadly for us and those executed, APS was not the only reminder of the impotence and failure of the government. Terrorist attacks continued and JPP documents how in the aftermath of each attack, individuals having no connection with the attacks, convicted for unrelated offences years ago were executed to make a point.

In Doctor Zhivago, Zhivago points out that the Russian revolutionary Strelinkov has burnt the wrong village, to which he replies, “What does it matter? A village betrays us, a village is burnt. The point’s made.” Zhivago responds, “Your point, their village.” This vicious random point has been made 382 times by the Punjab government to illustrate that they are prepared to kill the poor (there are no rich on death row); a similar point was made when stone throwing women were shot in the head in Model Town, Lahore.

Like the perpetrators of domestic violence who often live existences of abject spinelessness and humiliation, to anyone having power over them becoming increasingly violent on anyone they can, without the fear of a reprisal. The Punjab government’s killing spree is the feeble and hopeless attempt at making up for alliances with the LeJ, deference to Maulana Aziz and pleas to the TTP.

The Punjab government is not fighting terrorism or crime, it is fighting its own demons and insecurities and at the practical level, its own people. Punjab government was very keen on hanging Abdul Basit, paralysed from waist down; the macabre details of how to hang someone in a wheelchair have been hashed out in courts.

One hair raising finding of the JPP report is the link between overcrowded prisons and executions. Killing apparently is a method of making room. This is what human life has come to in a brutalised, wounded society presided over by an opportunistic and violent government.


The author is a lawyer and the country representative for Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.


Graphics by Nabeel Ahmed.

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