Pakistan has hanged 21 people in the past two days, taking the toll to 48 since a moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in December. Experts say the government is executing opponents in the garb of fighting terror.
When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's government decided to resume capital punishment four months ago, it justified the move by claiming it was a much-needed step to curb terrorism in the country. The government officials argued that fast-track executions were necessary to combat extremist attacks. There was also considerable support among the public for the lifting of the unofficial moratorium, which had lasted between 2008 and 2014.
The decision followed the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar on December 16 which shocked and horrified the nation. The militants' assault and siege of the school left more than 130 children dead. The people demanded the strictest action from the government and the resumption of executions was claimed to be one of the many actions required to punish the terrorists.
However, most of the people whom the government hanged in the first months of this year were not involved in the Peshawar massacre. Instead, they carried out failed assassination attempts on former president and army chief, Pervez Musharraf, who is currently detained on treason charges. At the same time, a number of incarcerated militants, including Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi, a key suspect in the 2008 Mumbai attacks, are still alive and are yet to stand trial.
On Tuesday, March 10, the government went a step further and lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in all capital cases, thus strengthening criticism that Islamabad was not serious in punishing the Taliban and other jihadists.
'A knee-jerk reaction'
More than 8,000 Pakistanis, including juveniles, are currently on death row, according to rights group Amnesty International (AI), which has sharply condemned the recent executions.
"Amongst those executed was Muhammad Afzal, who was 16 years old when he was sentenced to death," AI said in a press release on March 17. "Pakistan is turning itself into one of the world's top executioners – a shameful club no country should aspire to join. The government must immediately re-impose the moratorium on the death penalty with a view to its eventual abolition," it added.
Shafqat Hussain, a minor, was to be hanged on March 19 for a crime he allegedly committed when he was 14 years old, however, after an aggressive civil society campaign the government decided to put his execution on hold.
In a DW interview, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director, David Griffiths, says that by expanding the scope of the death penalty further and opening up for executions of non-terror convicts, Pakistan is using the death penalty as a quick-fix solution to tackling crime, when in reality there is no evidence to support that it works as a deterrent.
"Lifting the full moratorium on the death penalty is a highly regressive move by the Pakistani government, which could potentially put thousands of death row inmates' lives at risk. Sadly, the authorities have since turned to the death penalty in a knee-jerk reaction to try to combat 'terrorism.'
By expanding the scope of the death penalty further and opening up for executions of non-terror convicts, Pakistan is making the same mistake we see many governments repeating - using the death penalty as a quick-fix solution to tackling crime, when in reality there is no evidence to support this claim," said Griffiths.
Islamabad-based civil society activist and researcher, Salim Shah, fears that after hanging a few criminals the government will go after political opponents.
He also said that the decision to lift the moratorium was imposed on the civilian government by the military leadership: "The proof is that the people who have been hanged so far are those who attacked the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pervez Musharraf, or other military officials. So the hanging is controlled by the military and not the civilian government," Shah told DW.
On the other hand, the analyst argues that the authorities are reluctant to execute Mumtaz Qadri, who assassinated the former governor of the Punjab province, Salman Taseer, in 2011. "His hanging would actually go against the Islamic ideology of the state. Qadri, who should have been sent to the gallows by now, is getting all privileges in prison and the media is silent about it," Shah said, adding that not a single Taliban commander had been hanged so far.
"My worry is that they (the authorities) will hang or use the hanging as a means to harass political opponents such as the nationalists in the western Balochistan province, or other political parties that are disliked by the military," he added.
Some activists point out to the case of Saulat Mirza, an alleged activist of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) party, which has a strong hold on Pakistan's economic hub, Karachi. Mirza was convicted in murder cases in the late 1990s and has been in jail for the past 15 years. He was scheduled to be put to death on Thursday, March 19, but his hanging has now been postponed after he accused MQM chief Altaf Hussain of ordering him to assassinate political rivals – a confession he made on a video.
Observers say the government is using Mirza's execution to intimidate the MQM and to pave the way for an all-out military operation against the party.