Pakistan’s new government has ended a ban on the death penalty in a bid to tackle rising crime in the country – a move condemned by rights groups as major step backwards.
A five-year old moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan expired on 30 June. The new government, led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, has said that it will not be renewing the moratorium, adding that it is its policy to execute all death-row prisoners except those pardoned on humanitarian grounds.
Pakistan reportedly has some 8,000 prisoners facing death sentences, one of the highest numbers of people on death row globally. The Pakistani government puts the figure lower at around 400.
In most countries, the death penalty has been abolished while many others have moved towards moratoriums. Human Rights Watch has warned Pakistan’s new government that by ending a moratorium on the death penalty the country is reviving a “cruel” and “degrading” punishment, when the global trend is towards abolition.
“The moratorium on the death penalty should be restored immediately,” Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, told The Independent. “The death penalty is a cruel, inhumane, degrading and manifestly unjust punishment. [It is] only outliers, countries largely seen as human rights pariahs, that persist with its use. The situation in Pakistan is particularly dire. The criminal justice system is dysfunctional and the investigative capacity of the police and the ability of the judiciary to dispense justice is highly compromised.”
The previous government of the Pakistan’s Peoples Party, whose former chairman Benazir Bhutto was a fierce opponent of capital punishment, enforced the moratorium soon after taking power in 2008 under President Asif Ali Zardari. The party, headed by Mr Zardari, says it opposes the death penalty because its founder, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged on trumped-up murder charges after being deposed in a coup.
The revival of the death penalty in Pakistan will be a major source of concern for the country’s long-suffering religious minorities. Members of the Christian, Hindu and Ahmadi Muslim communities are facing an increasing threat of trumped-up blasphemy charges on little or no evidence.
Religious bigots and others pursuing a vendetta often use the vaguely worded blasphemy laws as a tool of coercion. Once the charge is made, the accused is taken into custody, from where they may not emerge. It is rare for the charge to be dropped.
The punishment for blasphemy is a mandatory death penalty. Even if the accused are not prosecuted, they can face a lingering threat to their lives. Last month, Rimsha Masih, a 15-year-old schoolgirl acquitted of charges of burning the Koran, fled to Canada where she was granted asylum.
In Pakistan, the death penalty is seen as a religious injunction and a form of exemplary punishment that acts as a deterrent.
Omar Waraich is a fellow of the International Reporting Project