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PAKISTAN: Government must commute death sentences

PAKISTAN: Government must commute death sentences and protect the people's right to life

Meredith McBride

The Pakistan People's Party took office in 2008, and shortly thereafter issued a moratorium on the death penalty, temporarily commuting thousands of death penalty cases to life imprisonment. The move was hailed by the UN and rights organizations worldwide, as it indicated a move by the Pakistani government to respect the right to life and make progress respecting human rights.

On June 30 of this year, that moratorium expired. The newly elected Pakistan Muslim League announced their refusal to renew the moratorium in an alleged effort to curb crime, especially in crime-ridden urban centers such as Karachi and conflict areas along the Northern border with Afghanistan. The new government is set to take office in September of 2013 and killings by the state will likely commence some time after this date.

Despite over 150 countries officially abolishing the death penalty, Pakistan continues to hold on to this archaic form of punishment. Although this move comes in alleged response to heightened crime and terrorism, studies have yet to be done to conclusively prove that the death penalty is a deterrent for violent crime. There is no easy way to address the devastatingly high crime rates in the country- but the government killing its' own citizens is not the answer. A more productive approach would address issues within the government, including corruption, impunity, and bribery.

In 2010, Pakistan ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; Article 6 (1) of which states: Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law...." Yet, twenty seven different crimes still qualify one for the death penalty under Pakistani Law. These include treason, terrorism, apostasy, and adultery. The most common crimes receiving the death penalty are terrorism, murder, and aggravated murder.

According to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Pakistan is now holding over 8300 death row inmates in its prisons, and 300 more are sentenced yearly. The pressure of the death penalty stay has also affected the mental health of these prisoners, many of whom have been waiting for years in limbo to know their fate.

In March of 2011, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) reported on 'the saga of the prisoners waiting in death row', and stated that although the number of death row inmates increased from 5447 in 2005 to 8300 today, prison capacity has not been increased to hold them, leaving them to subsist in inhuman and inadequate living conditions.

Poor living conditions and the corrupt monopoly run by the prison guards only serve to increase recidivism and criminal behavior, even within the jails themselves. Networks of criminal gangs operate in and outside of the prisons, as exemplified by the most recent storming of Dera Ismail Khan Jail in Punjab province. The Taliban conducted a fourteen hour raid on the jail, freeing 248 and killing 13, including Shiite prisoners.

Of the freed prisoners, 6 were on death row.

Even if the death sentence had been carried out on these 6 prisoners, it is unlikely that the Taliban's jail raid would have been prevented. Rather, the bold raid proves how ineffective the death penalty is when dealing with terrorism.

Journalists have been repeatedly denied access to these jails. The prisons and judiciary claim that they deny the media because of journalists' requests to access the most dangerous criminals. However, with Pakistan jails over capacity by 35,000 people, it is not in the best interest of the government to allow journalists to document the substandard living conditions.

Military courts have continued to try and sentence offenders independently from the country's judicial courts, exempting themselves from the moratorium. Mohammed Hussain was an army soldier, sentenced to death in 2009 for murdering one of his colleagues. His appeal for mercy to the Chief of Army Staff was denied, his death approved by President Asif Ali Zardari, and he was hanged on November 15, 2012.

It is counter-intuitive that the Pakistani government would reinstate the death penalty, a criminal sentence which many in the first world criticize as 'cruel and unusual', as a means through which to deter crime. Pakistan has verbally committed to the United Nations to stop all executions, but has yet to make good on this promise. It is unreasonable to re-institute the death penalty in absence of a judiciary and police force that is able to effectively carry out criminal investigations.

Services and materials provided to the Pakistani police force are inadequate and outdated. Training and investigative procedures need to be modernized. Within the prisons themselves, salaries are low and advancement is a slow process. This leads to corruption within the prison security and police force.

The practice of 'blood money' continues in Pakistan. In cases of murder, the criminal can be forgiven and the death penalty removed if the family of the victim comes to an agreement with the criminal on a sum of money to be paid as recompense for the loss of a family member. This practice puts a price on human life and serves to ensure that murders with money will walk free. The poor, being unable to pay, will receive no amnesty and be sentenced to death.

What is clear is that Pakistan's fledgling government is eager to assert itself as diplomatically and militarily stable, and is attempting to put on a competent face in combating insurgency and crime. Reinstating the death penalty does the exact opposite.

Many of the criminal activities and terrorism that the Pakistani government is hopeful to stop stems from believers of a radical sect of Islam that promotes the idea that through suicide bombing, one can reach salvation. For followers of such devout, if misguided, faith, it is not plausible to believe that the mere threat of death penalty could be a deterrent.

Ending the moratorium on the death penalty shows the international community that Pakistan continues to disvalue human life.

Many of the death row inmates claim that they were prosecuted and sentenced for crimes that either they didn't commit or were forced to commit through coercion or threat. In one such case, Muhammed Junaid claims that his father was sentenced to death after being set up for a fake murder by his brother, whom desired to take the family land. Muhammed's father has been in the prison system for 25 years since his sentencing in 1986.

The volatile nature of the government is a further reason the Pakistan government should abolish the death penalty. Former Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of the presently ruling Pakistan People's Party, pledged to abolish the death penalty but failed to do so. He was later hung on accusations of murdering an opposition party member's father.

The most considerable fact remains: as long as death sentencing continues, innocent people will be killed. Pakistan, especially, with its' challenges regarding crime and corruption, is at risk of murdering numbers of innocent people, all in the name of saving face on an international platform.

The Pakistani government should commute all death sentences to life imprisonment in both civilian and military cases. It should also ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which aims to abolish the death penalty. The Asian Human Rights Commission strongly urges the Pakistani government to reconsider its' position on the death penalty and make moves to protect the Pakistani people's right to life.
ends

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