On Sunday Pakistani Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan announced that the country would, in the coming weeks, hang all 500 death row prisoners convicted under the country's questionable anti-terrorism laws . All petitions for clemency by the convicts—6.25 percent of all inmates on death row—have already been dismissed.
The executions have been billed as a response to last Tuesday's Pakistani Taliban attack on a school in the notoriously violent and vulnerable city of Peshawar . The daylong siege by seven gunmen-cum-suicide bombers resulted in the death of 141 (132 children) and over a hundred injuries . It was perhaps the largest terrorist assault in Pakistan's history, and was brutal enough to earn active condemnation from the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda's Indian affiliate .
"We should not let our guard down if we want to avenge the victims of the Peshawar attack," Khan told reporters . "We are in a state of war."
The hangings are part of a larger response to the attacks with the potential to transform the security and court system of the nation. But many rights groups fear —with good reason—that the opening volley of retaliation is too broad and bloody and may prove counterproductive.
This marks the end of a 2008 moratorium on capital punishment in the nation, broken only by one hanging in a military court martial in 2012 . Khan claims that the penalty was reinstated a day before the attacks, but if that's so the public only learned of it a day after . At least six hangings occurred between the attacks and the declaration that all 500 would be executed. Reports indicate that Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif concurrently instructed Attorney General Salman Aslam Butt to pursue cases where terror suspects' death sentences had been staid .
Military and security forces have complemented this crackdown on terrorism-related convicts with a renewed offensive in Peshawar and the surrounding Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province —the least governed and most militant region of Pakistan . Over the past week over 40 militants were killed in raids, standoffs, and drone bombings, although it is unclear how many were Pakistani Taliban members and how many belonged to the nation's numerous other militant movements .
The government also created an Anti-Terrorism National Action Plan Committee of politicians and military and intelligence officers last Wednesday. They met today to discuss new short- and long-term strategies to take down the Pakistani Taliban and other groups. Yesterday members of the Committee revealed basic elements of the plan proposed and pending approval:
- Bans on media outlets broadcasting anything deemed extremist or terrorist in nature
- Plugging loopholes in the nation's sixteen anti-terror laws
- Shutting down unregistered religious schools and putting registered schools under review for extremism
- Increasing regulations on property rentals and SIM card sales
- Holding hoteliers responsible for any terrorists they've harbored
- Setting up at least 21 new military courts to fast-track terrorism trials
They have also pointed the finger at Afghanistan for not cracking down on Pakistani Taliban leaders there, floating the idea of deporting all Afghan refugees in the nation once they are able to do so in 2015. The response has been dubbed Zarb-e-Arb (roughly sharp and cutting).
Details of the approaching 500 executions suggest that much of this response may be worryingly rushed and misplaced. Of the two men executed on Friday and four more on Sunday , five were imprisoned for their role in a 2003 assassination bid on then-President General Prevez Musharraf and one in a 2009 attack on a military base in Rawalpindi , all acts perpetrated by militant groups. But Shafqat Hussain, scheduled for execution this Tuesday , is on death row for kidnapping and murder charges filed against him at age 14—a crime to which he confessed, but later rescinded his admission saying it was the result of nine days of police torture. And according to a report by the Justice Pakistan Project, perhaps up to 90 percent of the 500 death row inmates in the country arrested on terror charges did not commit crimes readily identifiable as terrorism.
"Instead of being reserved for the most serious cases of recognizable acts of terror," the report states , "the [nation's] anti-terror legislation is in fact being used to try ordinary criminal cases either in a deliberate attempt to evade the procedural safeguards guaranteed by ordinary courts or due to the vague and overly broad definitions of 'terrorism' in the legislation."
The execution decision, condemned by the United Nations and labeled as vengeful bloodlust by Human Rights Watch , may be less about a strategic and soundly considered deterrence to potential terrorists and more about political opportunism and rising pressures.
Sharif actually attempted to repeal the nation's capital punishment moratorium soon after his election in 2013 , but was shouted down from all ends. He's also faced criticism for not doing enough to combat extremist militants after coming to power on a platform of peace negotiation with the Pakistani Taliban, which many view as a failure after the resumption of active militant campaigns in militant strongholds in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa this summer .
Popular outcry for the execution of terrorism convicts has allowed Sharif the space to blamelessly break the moratorium , win rally-around-the-flag unity from his former political enemies , and shore up his security credentials. To do so, the pressure is on his government to act quickly, decisively, and severely, perhaps producing blunt force verdicts and laws in the process.
The desire for vengeance is reasonable, but pushing through fast-track executions and sweeping anti-terror legislations building up surveillance, security, and liability could be dangerous. Laws in Pakistan have already proven increasingly ill-defined and easily abused in recent months .
Mass executions and beefed up campaigns are also logically iffy given that the Pakistani Taliban has openly declared the attack on the Peshawar school was a retaliation for those killed in Pakistan's summer offensive—especially women, children, and other innocents caught in the crossfire. Khan has dismissed such concerns, saying the Pakistani military does not target innocents (although he did not deny that collateral damage occurs). But even he openly admits that further attacks are likely, as are reprisals against the nation's new measures .
A tragedy like the one in Peshawar necessitates some form of response to secure justice. That's fine and good, and it probably does require the death of key Pakistani Taliban members. But Pakistan looks to be out for blood just to prove they can shed it—and at risk of steamrolling in some ill-formed policies on the tide of it all. Much of that blood is not directly related to these attacks and some of it may be innocent. And if the American experience has taught us nothing else, it's that shedding blood willy-nilly often daisy chains into something much bloodier and more chaotic. You'd think, given how our own vengeance played out along the Afghan-Pakistan border, that Sharif and company might have taken the hint. Apparently they did not.