ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government must immediately put an end to the spate of executions in the country in the wake of the Peshawar school attack, which has already seen 19 people put to death over the past month, Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday.
Since a moratorium on executions was lifted on 17 December, Pakistan has threatened to send to the gallows around 500 death row prisoners convicted on terrorism charges. Another execution - of Ikramul Haq, member of the armed group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and convicted for murdering a Shi’a Muslim in 2004 - is scheduled for tomorrow in Lahore.
“The killing spree that is unfolding in Pakistan must end immediately. As horrific as the Peshawar attack was, proving you are tough on crime by carrying out more killings is never the answer to combating violence,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.
“The government should immediately reinstate a moratorium on executions with a view to the eventual abolition of the death penalty.”
While Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, its use in Pakistan is even more troubling since many death sentences are handed down after manifestly unfair trials.
“The Pakistani legal system is riddled with serious fair trial issues at every level – not least when it comes to terror cases which are often rushed through the justice system. Frequent use of torture to extract ‘confessions’, a lack of access to legal counsel, and long periods of detention without charge are just some of our concerns. There is a real risk that people whose convictions are unsafe will be put to death, or indeed already have been,” said David Griffiths.
Some of the prisoners executed so far, and those at risk, have been convicted in Anti-Terrorism Courts. These suspend fundamental rights of the defendant by holding trials in absentia or often using statements obtained through torture as evidence. Judges are also under pressure to conclude trials within seven working days.
Over the past weeks, Pakistan has amended its constitution to speed up the prosecution of terror cases and move them from civilian to military courts.
The jurisdiction of military courts over cases of terrorism raises serious concerns about fair trial guarantees, as rights could be violated in the rush to ensure speedy terrorism convictions.
“The latest moves to fast-track terror cases in military trials are leading Pakistan down a dangerous path. Military courts should never be used to try civilians under any circumstances. There is no excuse for sacrificing the right to a fair trial in the name of national security,” said David Griffiths.
Military jurisdiction should be restricted solely to the trial of military personnel accused of purely military or disciplinary offences. Military courts usually lack requirements for the independence or impartiality of judges. The courts are often characterized by prolonged periods of pre-trial or pre-charge detention, lack of access to lawyers and a lack of a right to appeal verdict.
Torture is also rife in Pakistani police and military detention centres, and statements extracted through torture continue to be used as evidence in courts.
Many on death row convicted of acts of terrorism were actually convicted of crimes that bear little resemblance to the conventional notion of terrorism. According to a study by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), out of 6,872 prisoners on death row in Pakistan in 2012 (now over 8,000), 818 were tried on terrorism-related charges. The definition of terrorism under Pakistan’s 1997 Anti-Terrorism Act is so vague that almost all crimes can fall under this definition. JPP’s findings reveal that 256 of these 818 known cases of “terrorism” prosecutions had no link to terrorism-related offences and were convicted of charges under the Pakistan Penal Code as opposed to anti-terrorism legislation. Some of the acts under which they were charged do not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty can be imposed under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Pakistan is a state party.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases and under any circumstances, regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The organization considers the death penalty a violation of the right to life as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.