On death row

October 08, 2017

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FOR the thousands of prisoners on Pakistan’s death row, Oct 10 will pass just like any other day. They will just strike off one more day of their nearly 12-year average jail sentence. It does not fall on a Thursday this year, so they will not have any family come visit them. Ostensibly, there is nothing special about this date to them.

But beyond their literal prison, Oct 10 is World Day Against the Death Penalty — an annual accounting of this punishment that is as irreversible as it is inhumane. Activists around the world reflect on how many lives have been ended by the state and for what, and how to continue the global trend towards abolition.

I would like to think, knowing this day exists, that someone cares about what happens to them; it would be heartening for those who remain in jails, waiting to die.

But until December 2014, they had no reason to expect the arrival of their warrants. Pakistan had a de facto moratorium in place for nearly six years. Today, we have executed 480 prisoners in less than three years.

We have executed 480 prisoners in less than three years.

We are used to counting bodies in Pakistan. Sometimes in the tens, other times in the hundreds; 480 is a significant death toll, if not a wholly unnecessary one. The numbers are terrifying. The figure has included juvenile offenders, the mentally ill. There are still more who have been executed only to have their corpses acquitted a year later. Many have died waiting to die.

So in two days, as we take stock of the way the death penalty is implemented in Pakistan, let’s go back to the reasons why it was resumed in the first place. No amount of time or commiseration can mitigate the horror of the attack on the students and staff of the Army Public School, Peshawar. I will always stand with the families of the victims of terrorist attacks, and it is my sincere hope that their memories are honoured appropriately, with dignity.

But this cannot be the case if Pakistan continues to wrongfully execute innocent individuals, the impoverished, juveniles and persons with mental and physical disabilities in their name. In line with this year’s theme, the criminal justice system is rigged against those who need it the most.

More worrying still, is the narrative connecting terrorism to resuming executions in Pakistan. It is true that Pakistan has experienced a decrease in terrorism in the past few years, but is it because we have been executing terrorists? The data reveals that less than 17 per cent of all executions have been for those convicted of terrorism-related charges. In fact, the majority of death sentences have been issued by district and sessions courts that have no jurisdiction over terrorism.

And looking at the courts that do, ie the anti-terrorism courts, this nexus becomes even more doubtful. The Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997, bears a definition of terrorism so broad as to include any action or threat that may create a “sense of fear or insecurity in society”. ATCs have convicted ‘terrorists’ for stealing cattle and even once, for flying a kite.

It is no wonder then, that research by Justice Project Pakistan has found that 88pc of all those convicted and 86.3pc of all those sentenced to death under the ATA were for crimes bearing no connections to terrorism.

The ATA makes the death sentences it breeds even more difficult to stomach with its required expedited trials, suspension of fundamental safeguards, admissibility of confessions in police custody and restrictions on bail. Under it, juvenile offenders are sentenced to death (like Iqbal was in Mandi Bahauddin) and have been executed (like Aftab Bahadur was in 2015). Under it, the victim’s family’s wishes are disregarded. If they do not want the defendant to hang, it does not matter because ATA convictions are non-compoundable.

Until this law is reformed, death sentences and executions will always be near impossible to justify. This was meant to happen in the two years before military courts expired. Nothing happened, showing an inherent reluctance to actually resolve the problem at hand and an apathy to the human rights abuses it enables.

Pakistan must introspect. Who are the people in jail? What are the circumstances that put them on death row? Would they be in danger of being hanged if they had the means to adequately defend themselves? Is terrorism being curbed because a mentally ill man was hanged? Does Pakistan want to go against the global tide that wants to abolish the practice?

This reflection won’t just take the one day. But World Day Against the Death Penalty (Tuesday), would be a good time to start.

The writer is executive director, Justice Project Pakistan.

Twitter: @SarahBelal

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2017