Pakistan is set to lift a moratorium on the death penalty, a move that is feared, to lead to the summary execution of at least 400 people out of a total of 8,000 people currently on death row.
Prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan says that those who need to be punished “should be punished”. The PML-N, the party that is in power, is in support of the capital punishment, according to its manifesto.
There had been a stay on the death penalty since 2008 as the previous government, led by the Pakistan Peoples Party, was against capital punishment. “This is because the leader of our party (Zulfikar Ali Bhutto) was hanged by General Zia and in principle we are against the punishment,” Raza Rabbani, a party spokesman explained.
In his inauguration speech in 2007, the then prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had promised that the death penalty would be done away with. While the party could not achieve that owing to opposition in parliament, it did place a moratorium on hangings through an order by President Zardari.
Since 2008, there had been no hangings in Pakistan, except for that of a soldier tried by a military court. But the presidential moratorium ended in June, and according to an interior ministry spokesman, it is not to be renewed. President Zardari’s term also ends in September.
In prisons across the country, the hangmen are getting ready to resume their gruesome duties. A prison official informed that there are over 30 hangmen employed by different prisons across the country. The last hanging of a civilian took place at one of the oldest prisons in the country, the Karachi Central Jail, but that was before 2008.
At present, 27 different crimes attract capital punishment in Pakistan. Judges continue to award the death penalty in many cases, particularly terrorism cases, but the executions are not carried out. Prison authorities have complained repeatedly that their facilities are being over stretched. In some prisons, death row prisoners have been placed in a separate annexe owing to their large numbers.
Prison officials have argued that either the death row prisoners be executed or their sentences commuted. “They are in a limbo for several years now and that is very unfair to them,” comments Sharmila Farooqi, a government advisor in Sindh.
Farooqi says that the tension in which these prisoners live is somewhat unbearable. Some have even committed suicide.
But things will now be different as the moratorium will soon be lifted. But human rights organisations say that there are flaws in the judicial system that award the penalty, as well as in the penalty itself.
For example, they say, under the Hudood Ordinances which were introduced by President Ziaul Haq, a convicted murderer can seek forgiveness from the family of the person he has killed. “If the family forgives the murderer, the sentence is commuted and the murderer is released,” informs Zohra Yusuf, the chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
Yusuf says that this rule allows some people to get off by paying blood money to the family of the person murdered. “That means those who can afford to pay can be freed. The poor will continue to be hanged.”
In the meantime, alarm bells have gone off in certain quarters. Incidents of death-row prisoners escaping are on the rise in the country. In Karachi, so far eight death row prisoners have escaped in different incidents in the past one week. Other cities have also reported escapes or attempted escapes by prisoners who fear that they will be executed soon.
Police officials say that militant outfits have started to plan aggressively to have their members freed. Intelligence agencies warn that the government may see a surge in kidnappings of high profile officials in the coming days as these will be used as bargaining chips to spring their members from jail.
Earlier this week, a group known as the “Chotu Gang” kidnapped several policemen in South Punjab and demanded the exchange of militants belonging to the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an extremist Sunni militant organization. The police complied.
But that is one reason why the government says the moratorium must go. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif has stated that his government will go ahead and execute those sentenced to death. He argues that the decision not to hang convicted murderers, especially those involved in terror attacks, weakens the government’s fight against terrorism.