We at the Amnesty International have been campaigning for an end to the death penalty for more than three decades. It is the ultimate form of cruel and inhuman punishment and violates the right to life.
Fortunately, the vast majority of countries appear to agree with us and we have seen steady progress towards ending state-sanctioned murder over the past decades. In 1945, when the United Nations (UN) was created, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes — today 140 nations are abolitionist in law or practice. Last year, only 22 of the world’s countries carried out executions. Sadly, Pakistan remains among the minority of countries that still keep the death penalty on the books, though it has only carried out one execution in more than five years.
Today, October 10, marks the World Day against the Death Penalty — a highlight on the calendar for many human rights organisations and an opportunity to continue the push for a definite end to executions all over the world. This year, we are focusing on an issue that has proved to be particularly relevant to Pakistan over the past weeks: how states continue to impose the death penalty against people with mental and intellectual disabilities.
In late September, Mohammad Asghar — a Scottish man of Pakistani descent who was on death row — was shot by an Elite Force prison guard in Rawalpindi’s Adiala jail. Asghar was sentenced to death for blasphemy in 2010 and the guard appears to have tried to kill him because of it. Miraculously, Asghar survived the shooting but he remains in critical condition and was already suffering from poor health before the attempt on his life.
While we keep on calling for his conviction on blasphemy charges to be overturned, Asghar’s case also highlights how the criminal justice system of Pakistan is not protecting people with mental disabilities from the death penalty. As a diagnosed schizophrenic, who had briefly been detained under the UK Mental Health Act in 2010 prior to moving to Pakistan, Asghar needed care and help, not the highest criminal penalty imaginable. Yet, successive appeals for clemency, to the courts and to the president of Pakistan were all rejected.
International law and standards clearly prohibit the use of the death penalty on people with mental or intellectual disabilities, but states around the world continue to flaunt this, not just Pakistan.
In Japan, Hakamada Iwao served 46 years on the death row until he was released earlier this year pending retrial, having been convicted of murder in an unfair trial. Despite developing severe mental illness during his decades in isolation, he still faces the threat of execution if the prosecution is successful in its appeal against the decision to grant him a retrial. In the US, two men with severe mental disabilities were executed last year and many others remain on death row.
It is crucial that the Pakistani government takes urgent steps to prevent others from ending up on death row like Asghar — international norms against people with mental or intellectual disabilities being sentenced to death must be enforced.
The death penalty is one of the few human rights issues where Pakistan can point to genuine progress in recent years. While other South Asian countries — like India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan — have resumed executions recently, Pakistan has a relatively clean record on the death penalty. Apart from the execution of a soldier in 2012, the death penalty has not been carried out in the country since 2008. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s new government threatened to resume executions in 2013 shortly after taking office, but backtracked after an outcry from rights groups and the threat of pulled aid by the European Union. In September this year, the execution of a murder convict in Rawalpindi was only stayed by the Lahore High Court at the last minute after a similar outcry.
A resumption of the death penalty would be a serious step backwards for human rights in Pakistan. The sheer number of lives at risk from such a decision is staggering. Pakistan has one of the largest death row populations in the world, with more than 8,500 prisoners believed to be under sentence of death. Most have exhausted their appeals process and could be put to death any time if Pakistan’s government decides to resume state-sanctioned killings.
The arguments in favour of the death penalty simply do not stack up. With deadly insurgencies across Pakistan and soaring levels of violent crime, it is tempting to think of executions as a quick fix to solving the law and order situation. But there is no conclusive evidence that the threat of the gallows works as a particular deterrent to crime — a fact confirmed in multiple studies across many different regions.
The focus on the death penalty also distracts from the real law and order crisis in Pakistan: the structural failings of the justice system that successive governments have failed to address. Security forces have received increasingly more sweeping powers and immunities, most recently under the Protection of Pakistan Act of 2014 and amendments to other laws this year. But practically nothing has been done to address endemic corruption and politicisation of the judiciary, or the lack of witness protection programmes and poorly trained police, lawyers and judges. These failings create a profound distrust in the criminal justice system and exacerbate the risk that innocent people can be put to death if executions resume.
The government should immediately impose a moratorium on executions as a first step towards the abolition of the death penalty. Pakistan has a chance to set an example on human rights to its wider South Asian neighbourhood. It’s not often we can say that. It’s a chance that shouldn’t be missed.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 10th, 2014.