Pakistan: New government commutes death sentences to life imprisonment

2008-06-24 08:46:14

June 24, 2008
A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission 

The Asian Human Rights Commission appreciates and welcomes the announcement by the new government of Pakistan to commute death sentences to life imprisonment. The AHRC hopes that the government of Prime Minister Syed Yousaf Raza Gillani will abolish the law which allows capital punishment by hanging.

On the occasion of birthday anniversary of Ms. Benazir Bhutto, the assassinated former prime minister and chair person of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani, Prime Minister of Pakistan, announced that his government would make recommendations to President Musharraf to commute the death sentences of thousands of prisoners to life imprisonment as a birthday tribute to Benazir Bhutto. The prime minister has also directed the Ministry of Interior to send a summary to the president for the conversion of capital punishment into life imprisonment. Around 7,379 persons will benefit by the commuting of their death sentences.

After the announcement by the Prime Minister Muslim clerics started opposing the commutation of the death sentence as repugnant to Islamic fundamentalism and the teachings of the Holy Quran. In this, a new environment is being created by vested interest to dehumanize society by favouring the death sentence, thereby condoning the violence perpetrated by the state power. During the 60 years of Pakistan’s independence the scope of the death penalty in the law of the country increased to cover 27 ‘crimes’ including blasphemy, stripping a woman in the public, terrorist acts, sabotage of sensitive installations, sabotage of railway, attacks on law enforcement personal, spreading hate against the arm forces, sedition, and many more. These all are covered under Islamic laws and Islamic Ideology, a slogan under narrow nationalism and religious fanaticism

During the rule of civilian or elected governments it was observed that death penalties were rarely awarded. However, during military regimes the numbers of executions by hanging rose by more than 100 in 2007. In 2005 52 people were hung, in 2006 the figure rose to 82 and in 2007 134 were were executed. The death penalty is still being carried out and according to the 2007 figures a total of 7,379 persons, including 44 women await execution.

The power to pardon or to commute the death sentence lies only before the president who, in many cases were military dictators who were happy to please the Muslim fundamentalists to legalise killing by the state.

The private courts like, Jirga and Islamic courts themselves decide to hang a criminal or to kill them by stoning. The president would normally have the authority to commute the death sentence, however, the Islamic Federal court, the federal Shariat court (FSC) have limited the power of the president by ruling that only the legal heirs of the victim have the power to pardon the convicted person. The “blood money” paid to relatives of victims is defined by the FSC as the only way to escape the death of penalty. Most appallingly, another method of commuting the death penalty is to hand over young girls as compensation for a crime of murder. The so-called Islamic courts release the person from the gallows only after receiving news of a compromise reached between parties on the exchange of these young girls.

In 1970, the government led by the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto raised the minimum term of a life sentence from 14 to to 25 years with the idea that capital punishment would be abolished in the years to come. However, this did not materialize and General Zia, the military ruler from 1977 to 1988, kept both the death penalty and the increased life sentence intact through one ordinance which was later on was made the part of the constitution. President Musharraf has done nothing to alter either the death sentence nor the minimum term.

Children, under the age of 18 years, are also subjected to the death penalty. The Juvenile Justice System ordinance was promulgated to prohibit the death penalty to persons under 18 years of age and made provision for juvenile courts. However, once again the High Court of Punjab in 2004 stopped this process. Fortunately the Supreme Court after one year restored the ordinance. It was difficult for courts to accept that death penalty is no solution for crimes.

Under these circumstances there are chances that Muslim fundamentalists and conservative forces will start using pressure tactics to stop the abolition of the death sentences and launch a movement through the media and street power. In fact they have already started. The government should not bow down before the reactionary forces and must assert the right to life for every one.

The Asian Human Rights Commission welcomes the intentions of the government to commute the death sentences into life imprisonment and is preparing a summery in this regard to forward the President of Pakistan to withdraw the death sentence. The announcement of the prime minister was only on the occasion of birth day celebrations of Ms. Benazir Bhutto. However, the AHRC urges the prime minister to immediately withdraw the amendment from the constitution in regard to the death sentence introduced by an army general at the behest of fundamentalists. A constitutional guarantee is required. Otherwise in the coming days executions will carried out via Federal Sharia and some private courts like the Jirga and tribal courts as they will pay no heed to the announcement of the prime minister.

As the government had signed the ICCPR and CAT and ratified the ICESCR, which is again a bold step of a new government, they should immediately go one step further to abolish death sentence from, the constitution of Pakistan.




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