One of the most common topics of Parliamentary style debates across the world is capital punishment. In the [mostly] four substantive and rebuttal speeches, students try to academically, rationally and logically establish their reasoning for abolishing or keeping the death penalty. A very fruitful exercise, it is sometimes useful to look at the reality of the event itself. The noose around the neck and the weighted drop or the electric chair or the lethal injection, it is the harshest form of punishment that can be carried out. It is the supposedly justified murder of another human being to compensate for the death of another, or for a crime so heinous that we find murdering someone through procedure justified.

Out of the 193 United Nation member states, 96 have completely abolished the death penalty, and another 49 have established a practice of not carrying out executions anymore. Only 41 countries continue to carry out death sentences regularly, and I would have to say that it is rather shameful that Pakistan is one of them. Pakistan is one of the 9 countries to have carried out execution of a juvenile too, despite having a law that eliminated death penalty for juveniles. An astonishing twenty-seven crimes carry the death penalty in Pakistan even when police investigations are weak, trials rely very heavily on testimonies of witnesses and accused (who are almost always tortured into giving statements) and forensic evidence to back up prosecution cases is nearly non-existent. The numbers are startling; in 2007 Pakistan condemned 309 prisoners to death, carried out 137 executions.

Seven days before the hanging, the “black warrant” of the condemned prisoner is issued; he is in the next days transferred to the “black room” to spend his last few days in solitary confinement. The officials who are supposed to oversee the execution (Jail Superintendent, four prison officers, executioner, two paramedics, a physician, a magistrate acting as judicial witness and possibly an imam/religious official) spend the last night in the prison premises. The condemned prisoner is allowed to meet his relatives on the last day, fed a diet of only liquids and fruits while the executioner rehearses the punishment. At dawn, the prisoner’s face is covered by a black mask, a noose is tied around his neck and his hung from a 9-12 yard rope (specially made in Lahore) from an 18-foot height beam. He hangs for thirty minutes, four feet above the floor and then a physician checks him to declare him dead. A human being is no more. Zuliqar Ali Bhutto was murdered in a similar way.

In an address to the National Assembly on June 21, 2008, Prime Minister Gilani recommended that all death sentences should be commuted to life imprisonment. Two weeks later, the Federal Cabinet approved the commutation of 7,000 death sentences, barring ones handed out for “heinous crimes”. There were some hitches as Chief Justice Dogar took suo-moto action and some groups amongst the legal fraternity expressed vocal opposition. The commutation could not be carried out and around 7,700 prisoners remained on death row for various charges according to Amnesty International. Around four dozen of the condemned prisoners are women, and at least two are children.

When President Zardari took office, he affirmed that there would be a concerted effort towards abolition of the death penalty and no one shall be sent to the gallows. More than 400 condemned prisoners in Adiala Jail and 250 in Central Jail, Hyderabad were shifted to ordinary barracks from the horror that is the death cell after the President intervened. Around four prisoners received last day extensions on the black warrants, but an ex-soldier was hanged in Adiala Jail in the November of 2008, and since then no one has been sent to the gallows. An unofficial and informal moratorium has since then been placed on carrying out death sentences. A prisoner was condemned to be hanged on January 12 this year in Sukkur Jail, but due to PPP MNA Farhanaz Ispahani’s efforts, his life was saved.

There has been a tug of war between the President’s Article 45 right to commute punishments and the court’s opinion that only the heirs can address such matter in case of a Qisas judgment. It must be noted here that no one has ever been convicted of murder under Qisas in the past 21 years, when the Qisas and Diyat Ordinance was promulgated (Source: The Application of Islamic Criminal Law in Pakistan – Sharia in Practice by TahirWasti).

Punjab, where the most number of prisoners were hanged, has decided to oppose any move to abolish the death penalty. Replying to the federal government, the Government of Punjab has contended that the death penalty works as a deterrent to crime, besides using the Islamic card. No one has meanwhile been hanged.

The current government has done a fair amount of effort to abolish the death penalty. It has taken the first ever steps in this direction by not letting any prisoners be sent to the gallows. This policy of a moratorium on capital punishments has been one of the most radical and of paramount important as far as criminal justice is concerned, and one of the best and appreciable policies of the past three years.

The death penalty is irreversible. It is a sentence that cannot be undone once carried out. Mistakes cannot be corrected once an innocent person has become victim to capital punishment. It is inhuman. It is used as a form of political oppression, discriminatorily against minorities and denies the victim any chance of rehabilitation. It extends suffering and pain to the family members of the perpetrator of the crime too; another grieving family is not anything to celebrate. Murder in the name of justice is not justified, it is vengeance. The possibility of judicial mistakes cannot be eliminated absolutely, and until that remains, innocent people will be executed across the world.

In the words of a Supreme Court advocate, “The judicial process is now so flawed in Pakistan that death penalty amounts to murder”. The death penalty must be done away with entirely in time. I fully understand the wide public support that the death penalty has. It is up to activists to convince the public of the inhumanity of the death penalty. Today is the time to support an all-around moratorium at least. I hope that whichever party or coalition comes into power in the next elections not only maintains the moratorium but does further efforts towards abolishing capital punishment altogether.

I look forward to a good debate between the readers on an issue that is central to our society and our concept of justice.

PS: The oft-repeated argument that death penalty deters crime is highly debated, there is a fair amount of data to support either sides and NO, Saudi Arabia does not have the lowest crime rates in the world – that is just another myth, part of the Arab worship taught in Pakistan. I would STRONGLY encourage supporters of the death penalty to just Google “wrongful execution” and see the human side of the story. Also, please read this formative report on death penalty in Pakistan.

Shahid Saeed likes to read history, is the Archivist art HoshMedia.org and tweets at @shahidsaeed.

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

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