Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Pakistan's mixed signals on death penalty

Two human rights organisations have urged the government of Pakistan to suspend executions while it considers a proposal to commute all death sentences.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) and the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) asked the government to ensure no-one was executed while the constitutionality of the proposal was considered by the Supreme Court.

In an open letter to the prime minister of Pakistan, Syed Yousaf Raza Gilani, they "welcomed this initiative as a historical breakthrough in the fight against the death penalty" but expressed concern that prisoners could still be hanged while it was being examined.

On 21 June, the prime minister announced the government would recommend to president Pervez Musharraf that all current death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment.

The government tabled a written statement in the national assembly on 21 November confirming the Law Ministry was considering the proposal.

The government was also reportedly reviewing laws relating to various capital offences, including laws for anti-terrorism, rape and gang rape, to examine any amendments that could be made consistent with Islamic principles.

Amnesty International reported on 31 October that 15 people had been executed since the prime minister's June announcement.

Review, but expansion
Despite the June announcement and the review, the government of Pakistan has given mixed signals on the death penalty recently with the announcement that the scope of the death penalty would be expanded to include 'cyber-terrorism' offences.

President Asif Ali Zardari released a new ordinance on electronic crime in early November making 'cyber-terrorism' a capital offence.

According to an AFP report, the ordinance would provide that: "Whoever commits the offence of cyber-terrorism and causes death of any person shall be punishable with death or imprisonment for life."

The report said the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Ordinance, which had yet to be approved by parliament, covered crimes that used computers or other electronic devices to threaten national security.

It would apply to Pakistanis and foreigners living in the country and abroad.

The HRCP criticised the proposal, noting that "under customary international human rights law, the death penalty is accepted only in very rare circumstances -- including the most extreme nature of crime carried out with the use of lethal weapons".

It said the law would be seen as "an oppressive law unless the punishments are proportionate to the crime and do not involve the death penalty".

"The present legal system in Pakistan does not guarantee due process and therefore the imposition of the death would only add to the miscarriage of justice suffered by thousands of people executed by the State," the organisation said in a statement.

State of justice
The open letter, by HRCP chairperson Asma Jahangir and FIDH president Souhayr Belhassen said the Supreme Court had intervened to review the constitutionality of the proposal in light of the in light of the country's Qisas and Diyat Ordinance.

The organisations argued that the law relating to Qisas and Diyat in effect withdrew the state -- and therefore the rule of law -- from deciding the punishment for crimes such as manslaughter and murder.

Instead the victim’s heirs determined the punishment, including the consideration of any pardon or compensation.

"FIDH and HRCP have repeatedly asked for a profound reform of the Qisas and Diyat Law because it de facto amounts to a privatisation of justice, as the offences of physical injury, manslaughter and murder are no longer offences to the state, but are considered a dealing between two private parties," the letter said.

"The State withdraws from one of its main responsibilities, as it no longer is the guardian of the rule of law through the exercise of justice.

"In addition, under this law, pardoning a condemned prisoner in case of murder rests solely with the heirs of the victim, rather than with the President, contrary to Article 45 of the Constitution.

"Indeed, under this ordinance, passed as a law in 1997, the aggrieved party is given precedence to choose the penalty for the culprit. Under Islamic law, the punishment can either be in the form of qisas (equal or similar punishment for the crime committed) or diyat (compensation payable to the victim's legal heirs)."

Pakistan has one of the largest death row populations in the world, with about 7,000 people believed to be living under sentence of death.

World Day appeal
The HRCP issued a statement on the World Day Against Death Penalty (10 October) noting "that the systematic and generalized application of death penalty had not led to an improvement of the law and order in the country".

"It is ironic that while Pakistan has one of the highest rates of conviction to capital punishment in the world with around 7,000 convicts on the death row in Pakistan today, yet its law and order is alarmingly dismal," the organisation said.

On the contrary, "[t]he massive application of death penalty has not strengthened the situation of law and order in the country".

"The HRCP argued that the death penalty was discriminatory, unfair and utterly inefficient and must be abandoned in accordance with the international human rights law."

Related stories:
Will Pakistan's death row be emptied? -- 24 June 2008
Call for abolition: Pakistan columnist -- 17 October 2006
Pakistan: Thousands in "brutal" system -- 12 October 2006

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