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Pakistan Lifting the Death Penalty Moratorium for 'Terrorists' Might Backfire

Executions for those convicted on terrorism charges are expected to resume in Pakistan soon, but campaigners say that in 88 percent of those cases, "there was no link to anything reasonably defined as terrorism."

by Sally Hayden
Dec 18 2014, 6:45pm

Photo via Flickr/Aapo Haapanen

Pakistan has lifted its moratorium on the death penalty for people convicted of terrorist-related offences, but activists warn that those who will be executed over the coming weeks may not fit the definition of terrorists as most people understand it.

Citizens reacted with disbelief and horror after Pakistan witnessed the largest terrorist attack in its history on Tuesday, when at least 148 people — including 132 children — were massacred by the Taliban in a school in Peshawar. 

On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced that executions for terrorism offences would be resumed. After expressing his "deep grief" about the tragedy, the prime minister asked a gathering of lawmakers: "If terrorists are not punished, then who will be punished?"

This declaration has been welcomed by some, but met with anxiety by others. One of the more detailed criticisms comes from London-based organization Reprieve. In a report released on Thursday, it argues that in 88 percent of the death row cases in Pakistan, "there was no link to anything reasonably defined as terrorism."

One of the examples both Reprieve and Justice Project Pakistan have highlighted is that of Shafqat Hussain, who was sentenced to death at the age of 14 for kidnapping and killing a child. Hussain, Reprieve say, was tortured for nine days in order to extract a confession, and he has now been on death row for 10 years. 

Hussain's conviction was changed on appeal to "involuntary manslaughter." Yet when the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted on Wednesday, Hussain was issued with a "black warrant," indicating that he will be one of the first people to be executed in the coming days.

At least 800 of the inmates currently on death row in Pakistan have been found guilty of terrorism offences, and there are currently over 17,000 pending terrorism cases. When a case is taken against an individual under the 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act, certain rights are suspended. The defendant may lose the right to be present during the trial. The use of torture to extract confessions may also be overlooked, according to Reprieve's research.

Taliban gunmen kill 132 children in attack on Pakistani army school. Read more here.

Kate Higham, Reprieve's investigator for Pakistan, told VICE News that the lifting of the moratorium is a "knee-jerk reaction" to "what is undoubtedly an absolutely horrific tragedy."

"I think there is a sense that the government feel they should be seen to be being tough on terrorism and implementing a policy that can be seen to be targeting this," she added.

However, Higham argues that restarting executions could be counterintuitive when it comes to the fight against terrorism: "The more people are wrongly executed in the name of being tough on terror, tough on crime, and the more incompetent the criminal justice system looks, the more obvious it is that this is not an effective way of targeting and preventing terrorist attacks. I think actually there's nothing to be gained from allowing this knee-jerk gut reaction to dictate policy, [though] in the short-term it might appear that there is."

Pakistan lifts moratorium on the death penalty as funerals continue for 132 murdered children. Read more here.

Higham told VICE News that in the period since she began researching this topic in August 2013, she has discovered examples of people sentenced to the death penalty for "terrorism" crimes that include family disputes, as well as a man accused of killing his father.

"I know so many of these cases that even if a conviction is considered safe — and I would argue that no conviction from the anti-terrorism courts can be considered safe — it would be absolutely not what anybody outside Pakistan is thinking of when they consider a terrorism case."

In the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, Pakistan initially defines terrorism as action "designed to coerce and intimidate or overawe the Government or the public or a section of the public or community or sect, or create a sense of fear or insecurity in society," before going on to give examples of targets and types of attack that might qualify.

Higham said that, given how ill-defined the lines are between terrorism and non-terrorism offences, restarting executions brings the possibility of them being implemented again for all kind of offences. "Once the moratorium lifts, the moratorium lifts."

David Griffiths, Amnesty International's deputy director for Asia-Pacific, was another campaigner to express concern against the lifting of the moratorium.

In a statement on Wednesday, he echoed Higham's phrasing: "Pakistan is understandably gripped by fear and anger in the wake of the attacks. However, lifting the moratorium on executions appears to be a knee-jerk reaction which does not get at the heart of the problem — namely the lack of effective protection for civilians in north-west Pakistan.

"This is where the government should focus its energies, rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence with the resumption of executions." 

Meanwhile, Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi, one of the seven men facing trial over the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, was granted bail in Pakistan on Thursday, apparently due to lack of evidence. The coordinated bombing and shooting campaign resulted in the death of 166 people.

Photo via Flickr

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd