BY SARAH BELAL
We have all been devastated this week by the senseless murder of at least 145 people in a school in Peshawar. We expect our government to protect us from those who would seek to harm us and our families, and this hideous act of barbarism demands a response.
But the government’s proposal to start executing so-called ‘terrorists’ on Pakistan’s 8,000 strong death row would be a shameful and inadequate reaction, which will neither help the victims of this week’s atrocity nor improve the security situation in Pakistan.
A report by the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) and Reprieve titled ‘Terror on Death Row’ suggests that many of those who will be first to face the hangman’s noose will not only have no connection to the massacre, they will not even fit any reasonable person’s definition of a ‘terrorist’. At the very worst, they are common criminals. But, given the extent to which the trials at which they were convicted fell short of proper standards of justice, and were founded on bogus confessions extracted under torture, there is the real risk many could be innocent altogether.
One such individual is Shafqat Hussain. At only fifteen years of age Shafqat was sentenced to death under Pakistan’s notorious Anti-Terrorism Act for an alleged ‘kidnapping’, which was characterised as terrorism on the tenuous basis that it “created a sense of terror in the wider community”. Shafqat was convicted on the strength of one piece of evidence: a forced confession made after nine days of brutal police torture.
Shafqat’s fate was set before anyone entered the courtroom: too poor to afford legal representation and too young to understand the trial, his state-appointed lawyer told him that “no one leaves the anti-terrorism courts without a death sentence”. The same lawyer failed to raise crucial evidence showing that his client was a child and not even eligible for the death penalty.
Many of the 800 prisoners awaiting execution for ‘terrorist’ offences will have had the same experience as Shafqat. Most people charged under this legislation are subjected to systematic police torture and deprived of their right to due process on the basis they were badged ‘terrorists’ when arrested. Police can search their homes and belongings without a warrant, they have no right to appear at their own trial, and the courts that try them are pressured to conclude the trial and hand down a verdict within seven days, barring which disciplinary action can be taken against the trial judge.
Because of this, Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act has been a gift for corrupt and incompetent officials seeking to bypass basic standards of justice and secure hasty convictions. And sadly, its overuse and abuse has become widespread. The number of terrorist cases being prosecuted in Pakistan has skyrocketed, and there are currently 17,000 such cases pending, with courts continuing to hand down death sentences in fundamentally unfair trials. In Sindh, where Pakistan’s most populous city is located, an astonishing 40 percent of the prisoners on death row were tried as ‘terrorists’.
No one can be under the illusion that this piece of legislation is making Pakistanis safer. Attacks continue even as corrupt police and officials pack the country’s prisons with more unfortunate ‘terrorists’. But the Anti-Terrorism Act has deprived Pakistan’s public of their basic rights under the law. In doing so it has played directly into the hands of those seeking to strike a blow against the fundamental institutions of Pakistani society.
Let there be no doubt that many of those who, in the coming hours and days, are set to be led to the gallows are simply not terrorists. They are not people who have stormed cities or towns, causing untold tragedy; they are not people who have planted bombs or led raids. They are not people who have terrorised communities in the name of an ideology.
Instead, they are people like Shafqat Hussain who, at fifteen years of age, was sentenced to death by an anti-terrorism court on the basis of a single piece of evidence obtained after days of abuse and torture.
The writer is a barrister at law and the executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP). – Courtesy The News