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Road to abolition

October 21, 2018

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TEN years ago, in 2008, Pakistan took a much-needed step towards abolition of the death penalty by establishing a moratorium on executions. Less than six years later, that moratorium was lifted as a knee-jerk reaction to the increasing threat of terrorism.

In the four years since then, Pakistan has become one of the world’s top executioners. We boast one of the largest death row populations in the world: nearly 4,700 people, according to the most recent official government figures, are currently waiting to be executed by the state and to join the almost 500 others who have been executed since December 2014. While there has been a notable reduction in the number of prisoners on death row over the past several years, we still sentence one person to death each day, on average.

These are statistics that Pakistan should be ashamed of. Throughout the world, countries are gradually moving towards abolition, some by maintaining moratoriums and others through reducing the number of offences that are punishable by death and putting in place protections for the most vulnerable. Yet in Pakistan, we keep missing the train to abolition.

We have seen the number of crimes punishable by death increase over time, and the system through which executions are handed down continues to be riddled with travesties of justice. We cling to the idea that capital punishment is an effective deterrent — when all reliable studies on the matter say it is not.

Despite a reduction in death row prisoners, we still sentence one person to death each day, on average.

We say the death penalty is to combat terrorism, yet the vast majority of people on death row have not been convicted of terrorism charges.

Yes, we are far from being the only country in the world that still applies the death penalty; in fact, some 56 countries fully retain the death penalty. But just four countries — Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia — were responsible for 84 per cent of all officially recorded executions carried out worldwide in 2017. (There are no official figures for certain countries, including China.)

Perhaps most tragically, Pakistan belongs to a small club of countries that execute minors and people with mental and intellectual disabilities.

For the former, our laws prohibiting the application of the death penalty to juveniles are summarily disregarded, while for the second, we inexplicably have not been able to adopt laws that would enable diagnoses and adequately consider the degree of criminal culpability.

The absence of adequate laws is compounded by severe violations of fair trial standards: civilians are routinely tried and convicted by military tribunals, and people who cannot afford decent legal counsel see their rights trampled upon. Indeed, it is the poor who generally find themselves the victims of a justice system that is faulty to a large degree.

A case in point: in October 2016, the Supreme Court acquitted two brothers — Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Qadir — who had been convicted of murder in 2005. The conviction was upheld by the Lahore High Court in 2010. But by the time the Supreme Court heard the case, and overturned the conviction, the two men had already been executed. This case, like so many others, can only tell us one thing: the death penalty must be abolished.

On Pakistan’s overcrowded death row, inmates who should not have been there in the first place are faced with conditions that can only be described as horrendous: up to eight people crammed in tiny 2x3 metre cells, contagious diseases that spread like wildfire, and the uncertainty of when it will all end. None of this contributes to decreasing the threat of terrorism.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and his new government have a unique opportunity to revisit Pakistan’s laws imposing capital punishment and to prove that they are committed to addressing some of Pakistan’s most egregious human rights abuses. Even small steps would be welcome: pledging to stop the imposition of capital punishment on children and those with mental illness, for example, would send a message that the government is finally willing to step up and protect the most vulnerable amongst us, as is its duty.

When the end of the moratorium on executions was announced four years ago, the then-chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Zohra Yusuf, said that it was a clear indication that the authorities were “going after vengeance rather than justice.” As we take stock of the past several years, the statement has proven itself to be true. It is now high time to consider how we can get back on the road to abolition — one I am convinced leads to justice.

The writer is chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 21st , 2018