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Clearing the death cells

Weigand Florian Kommentarbild App
Florian Weigand
August 4, 2015

Despite rights group protests, Pakistan has hanged 'teenage' convict Shafqat Hussain. But the resumption of executions as a tool in the fight against terror is just a populist pretext, says DW's Florian Weigand.

Pakistan Eltern von Shafqat Hussain Todeskandidat
Image: Getty Images/AFP/S. Qayyum

To put it bluntly, I am against the death penalty. The punishment is, in essence, inhumane. It is often forgotten that it also burdens the judges with an enormous responsibility when they have to decide over life and death, particularly in cases where there is even the slightest doubt as to the defendant's guilt.

The Pakistani judiciary does not seem to be giving much thought to this responsibility. Since the government in Islamabad lifted the moratorium on capital punishment last December, 180 people have been executed. A further 8,000 prisoners in the South Asian nation's jails are awaiting the same fate.

It is not only suspected terrorists who are facing the death sentence in Pakistan. Capital punishment was actually reinstated to send those convicted of terrorism to the gallows - a reaction to the Taliban massacre at a Peshawar school, in which more than 150 people were killed, most of them children.

But, unfortunately, it now seems as if the proponents of the death penalty used this horrible incident as a populist excuse for a general resumption of executions. Even worse is the fact that death sentences are carried out even when there are doubts regarding the guilt of the offenders, as demonstrated in the case of Shafqat Hussain.

Weigand Florian Kommentarbild App
DW's Florian Weigand

Pakistan just seems eager to clear its death row backlog. And it affects, as is the case elsewhere in the world, the underprivileged.

Shafqat Hussain comes from a poor Kashmiri family, on the edge of the Himalayas. There is no birth certificate that could prove he was a minor at the time of the crime. The family couldn't afford an effective and professional legal defense team. And the Pakistani judges seemed unaffected by UN demands to re-examine the case.

This combination of poverty, dubious legal proceedings and contempt for international criticism sends a devastating signal for similar cases. The case of Asia Bibi, for instance, has reverberated across the world.

As a member of a Christian minority, she stands accused of committing blasphemy against Islam - a crime punishable by death in Pakistan. Asia Bibi, whose case is based solely on accusations, is also from a poor background and received rudimentary education, at best.

She can't afford an expensive lawyer, and anyone defending her potentially endangers their own lives as they will be viewed as protecting a "blasphemer." This is why international human rights organizations have stepped into the breach. Even the pope has intervened on behalf of the fellow Christian.

Should her judges proceed in the same way as in the Shafqat Hussain case, then Asia Bibi will become another victim of Pakistan's judicial system. Even worse, the latest wave of executions could serve those seeking to get rid of political opponents, disturbing peasants or common people involved in land disputes or other kinds of private squabbles.

This is yet another reason why executions must be stopped - not only in Pakistan. Whoever ends up behind bars should have the opportunity to either be released or compensated, should conditions change at a later stage. An execution, however, is irreversible.

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