Rights groups slam Pakistan′s reinstatement of death penalty | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 18.12.2014

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Rights groups slam Pakistan's reinstatement of death penalty

Rights groups have criticized Pakistan's decision to lift a ban on capital punishment as the South Asian country moves to execute terror convicts. AI's David Griffiths tells DW the death penalty is not the answer.

The Pakistani government has intensified its efforts to tackle the Taliban insurgents who attacked a military-administered school on December 16 in the country's northwestern city of Peshawar. 141 people, mostly children, were killed in the South Asian country's worst attack in years.

In response, the army launched fresh airstrikes in the restive tribal areas bordering Afghanistan, as its head, General Raheel Sharif, flew to Afghanistan to discuss the security matters with the neighboring country's leadership. But in an unexpected move, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced a day later that he was lifting a ban on executions in terrorism-related cases. Sharif, who took office in June last year, temporarily lifted the moratorium but later re-imposed it when the Taliban agreed to engage in peace negotiations with Islamabad.

The Pakistani government has captured hundreds of al Qaeda and Taliban operatives over the years, who are languishing in jails. The PM's move is believed to be aimed at executing over a hundred convicts to prove the administration's resolve to eradicate terrorism from the Pakistani soil. Rights groups, however, have expressed serious concern over the PM's decision to remove the moratorium ban.

David Griffiths

Griffiths: 'The sheer number of lives at risk now makes the government's move extremely concerning'

In DW interview, Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director, David Griffiths, says that Pakistan is understandably gripped by fear and anger in the wake of the attack, but argues that resorting to the death penalty is not the answer.

DW: What is your view on PM Sharif's decision to lift the death penalty moratorium for those convicted of terrorism?

David Griffiths: The attack on a school in Peshawar was utterly reprehensible, and it is imperative that those responsible for this unimaginable tragedy are brought to justice. However, resorting to the death penalty is not the answer – it is never the answer. Pakistan is understandably gripped by fear and anger in the wake of the attacks. However, lifting the moratorium on executions appears to be a knee-jerk reaction which does not get at the heart of the problem exposed by the Peshawar attack – namely the lack of effective protection for civilians in north-west Pakistan.

What are your major concerns about the abolishment of the moratorium?

The death penalty is one of the few human rights issues where Pakistan can point to genuine progress in recent years, unlike many other countries in the region. Apart from the execution of a soldier in 2012, the death penalty has not been carried out in the country since 2008. It's extremely disappointing that the government is now looking to reverse this positive trend.

The death penalty violates the human right to life as much as acts of terrorism do, and only perpetuates a cycle of violence. Amnesty International opposes it in all circumstances – regardless of the nature of the crime. In Pakistan, there are also serious concerns about the fairness of trials that makes the use of the death penalty even more problematic – many death sentences are handed down after unfair trials. The death penalty is used for crimes for which it cannot be imposed under international law, and against people who were below 18 years of age when the crime was committed – again, in serious breach of international law. The authorities should certainly rethink their use of the death penalty, but by abolishing it for all crimes.

How many people are currently on Pakistan's death row who were tried as terrorists?

The sheer number of lives at risk now makes the government's move extremely concerning. Pakistan has one of the highest death row populations in the world, numbering more than 8,000. The NGOs Reprieve and the Justice Project Pakistan estimated in a December 2014 report that there were more than 800 prisoners on death row in Pakistan who had been tried as "terrorists," so any reversal of the moratorium would almost certainly put hundreds of lives at risk.

Some analysts argue that non-terrorism related offences in Pakistan are often tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), as doing so hastens the trial under Pakistani law. What is your view on this?

There is no doubt that the Anti-Terrorism Act is both misused and abused, as Reprieve and the Justice Project Pakistan pointed out. The ATA gives the judiciary and security forces sweeping powers – trials are rushed through without giving lawyers the time they need to prepare a full defense, while some fundamental rights of defendants are suspended under the ATA. Concerns raised that the law has been used to convict hundreds of people whose alleged offenses have nothing to do with "terrorism" – including "blasphemy," robbery and kidnapping - must be investigated.

A wounded Pakistani student receives treatment at a hospital following an attack by Taliban gunmen on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2014 (Photo: credit should read A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images)

Griffiths: 'Lifting the moratorium on executions appears to be a knee-jerk reaction which does not get at the heart of the problem exposed by the Peshawar attack'

We saw a further worrying development this July when the National Assembly passed a new anti-terror bill, which was widely criticized by rights groups. The vaguely formulated law essentially violates a number of Pakistan's international rights obligations and open up for the abuse of suspects in detention.

What do you think the government should be focusing on instead?

It is tempting for political leaders in Pakistan and many other countries to think of the death penalty as a quick-fix solution to violent crime, but that simply is not true. There is no evidence that the death penalty acts as a particular deterrent compared to other forms of punishment – it would only extend the cycle of violence. Instead of resuming executions, Pakistan should seek long-term solutions that result in systemic improvements in the administration of criminal justice.

In response to the horrific attack in Peshawar, the government needs to deal with the lack of adequate protection to civilians in northwestern Pakistan, who are living with the daily threat of such violence.

David Griffiths is Amnesty International's Deputy Asia Pacific Director.