Conflict & Justice

Pakistan reinstates death penalty despite appeal from rights groups

In an attempt to curb escalating crime rates, Pakistan’s new government has ended a 2008 ban on the death penalty.

The move came just a few days after Amnesty International released a statement asking Pakistan to “impose an immediate moratorium on the use of the death penalty,” rather than resume executions.

While the government estimates that there are about 400 people currently on death row in overcrowded prisons throughout the country, Amnesty International assessed the real number to be up to 8,000—each of which could now be facing execution, according to the statement.

“The sheer number of people at risk makes the new government policy of turning back to the death penalty even more horrendous,” said Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.

According to Pakistani Interior Ministry Spokesman Omar Hamid Khan’s comment to Reuters, the new policy of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government was to “execute all death row prisoners, except those pardoned on humanitarian grounds.”

The original moratorium enforced in 2008 by the previous government—Pakistan’s People's Party, under chairman and capital punishment opponent Benazir Bhutto—expired on June 30, only two weeks after the 5th World Conference Against the Death Penalty took place in Madrid, Spain.

The conference included the participation of 90 countries and focused on the abolition of the death penalty, adherence to human rights treaties, a moratorium on death penalty convictions and the establishment of penal code reforms. The largest portion of discussion centered on the Middle East and North Africa.

The session began with Iraqi Minister of Justice Hassan Al Shammari defending Iraq’s retention of capital punishment as “the need to ensure exemplary punishment for crimes committed by ‘terrorists.’” The issue of the death penalty, he said, is heavily influenced by religion and culture—an argument many participants found to be the issue.

“The main problem in not progressing toward an abolitionist position is rooted in the fact that these countries have made a poor interpretation of the Koran, which does not impose the application of Talion Law [i.e. “an eye for an eye”] for Muslims, but does, on the other hand, impose the preservation of life through forgiveness,” Tunisian anthropologist and philosopher Youssef Seddik said to the conference.

It was determined that “a true democratization is necessary, which would protect human rights above all else, and would not be limited to the holding of elections” in order for any progress to be made toward eliminating the threat of the death penalty in many of the region's constitutions.

Pakistan’s new government, however, deemed the death penalty a necessary practice in tackling the country’s law and order issues, according to Amnesty, despite a lack of evidence indicating that executions deter crime more successfully than life imprisonment.

“At a time when Pakistan’s justice system is struggling to cope with the law and order situation, it can be all too easy for governments to see the death penalty as a quick fix solution,” Truscott said. “But the death penalty is not the answer to Pakistan’s justice problems.”

According to Death Penalty Information Center’s global reports, Pakistan was listed as one of the top five countries with the most confirmed judicial executions, prior to the ban, from 2005 to 2008. Most commonly, Pakistan performs executions by hanging or shooting and in some more religiously nuanced cases, stoning.

Iran, one of Pakistan’s neighboring countries, has had the second highest number of judicial executions from 2005 through 2012. Both of Pakistan’s other neighbors, India and Afghanistan, retain the death penalty also.

Afghanistan has at least 189 individuals on death row. India has 499 inmates awaiting punishment, and has already performed seven executions so far this year, the report shows.

The collected data mark a drastic gap between the number of inmates on death row for all three of Pakistan’s neighbors in the hundreds, and Pakistan’s in the thousands, even though Pakistan has far fewer prisoners per capita than both Iran and Afghanistan.

When asked to comment on Amnesty International’s criticism, the Reuters article said, Omar Khan “pointed out the fact that capital punishment was still in use in parts of the United States… home to the best judicial system.”

Indeed, the United States is number one in the world in prisoners per capita; with Texas having just last month executed its 500th inmate since the 1980s. The Death Penalty Information Center and the International Centre for Prison Studies have also consistently listed the US as one of the top fives countries with the most executions from 2005 to 2012, with 16 executions recorded so far this year as of June 27.