Asia-Pacific, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights

PAKISTAN: Divided Over the Death Penalty

Zofeen Ebrahim

KARACHI, Oct 9 2011 (IPS) - “I think Mumtaz Qadri carried out his action in a highly emotional state and should not be given the death penalty,” Mufti Muhammad Naeem, founder of Binoria University International, a religious seminary in Karachi tells IPS. Qadri has been sentenced to death on two counts for assassinating Punjab governor Salman Taseer in January this year.

Members of Sunni Tehrik, an Islamist political party, protesting the verdict in Lahore. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS.

Members of Sunni Tehrik, an Islamist political party, protesting the verdict in Lahore. Credit: Rahat Dar/IPS.

Naeem acknowledges that “Qadri should not have taken the law into his hands” but says his action reflected “his adulation for Prophet Muhammad like any Muslim would have.” The dispute over the death sentence arises just ahead of the World Day against the Death Penalty on Oct. 10.

Pakistan is among 23 countries that still impose the death penalty, says Amnesty International. Last year 365 persons were sentenced to death in Pakistan. But since December 2008 there has been an informal moratorium on these executions. Oct. 10 will mark the 1,040th day in Pakistan without execution of a death penalty convict.

Qadri was one of Taseer’s police guards. He riddled the governor with bullets on Jan. 4, and then surrendered.

Judge Syed Pervaiz Ali Shah overruled Qadri’s plea that he had assassinated the governor because of the latter’s “blasphemous” statements. The high-profile trial was held inside Adiyala prison in the garrison town Rawalpindi in Punjab province.

The ruling has drawn mixed responses. “It’s a bit weird when a death sentence being announced gives me joy and hope,” tweeted stand-up comedian Sami Shah. “I’m against death penalty; don’t want MQ to be hanged. But it’s important to convict and punish him,” tweeted human rights activist and journalist Beena Sarwar.

Osama bin Javaid, journalist at DawnNews TV wrote: “Who’s protecting the judge and the police station?”

“Our rejection of death penalty is based on a principle which cannot be compromised by any incident,” I.A Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) told IPS. The Commission has long stood for abolition of this form of punishment.

Rafia Zakaria, a legal scholar who works for Amnesty International in the U.S. and opposes the death penalty “in this or any case” told IPS that the death penalty “positions the state as the institutionalisation of private revenge. Justice requires punishment, not retaliation and vengeance.” She said Qadri’s act was “reprehensible” but said life imprisonment would be appropriate.

“I don’t believe Qadri’s hanging will be a deterrent,” HRCP chairperson Zohra Yusuf told IPS. “People like him are proud of their actions – quite like suicide bombers.”

“There is no such thing as a special case,” agreed Zakaria. “It is, in fact, precisely that perspective that undermines the rule of law and has in its various iterations delegitimised the legal system in Pakistan.”

“There is a difference between our position and the views of the mobs which are protesting against the verdict,” said Rehman. “We oppose death penalty but hold Qadri liable to stiff punishment, while the agitators uphold death penalty and argue that Qadri did not commit any offence.”

The court verdict came after months of campaigning by hardline religious groups who hailed Qadri a hero. After the murder he was garlanded and showered with rose petals. Many in the legal fraternity vowed to defend him.

The HRCP has renewed its call for abolition “on account of the critical and well-documented deficiencies of the law itself, of the administration of justice, police investigation methods, chronic corruption and the cultural prejudices against women and religious minorities.

“Even though there has been an informal moratorium on executions since December 2008, capital punishment remains on the statute books for over two dozen offences, and the courts continue to award the death penalty more or less on the pre-moratorium rate. HRCP demands abolition of the death penalty in Pakistan and urges that until that happens the informal moratorium on executions should be made formal.”

Upon taking up office, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani had vowed to “discourage the imposition of capital punishment.” But instead of reducing the number of offences for which the death sentence is awarded, “cyber-terrorism” was added to Pakistan’s long list of offences, taking it to 28. When Pakistan came into existence in 1947 only the offences of murder and treason carried the death sentence.

But with sentiments in favour of Qadri running high, many suggest that this may not be the best of time to call for abolition or even a moratorium. “But the time is never right,” says Yusuf. “The debate has to start.”

“The discussion must be how to temper its (death penalty) use until action is taken to abolish it altogether,” 24-year-old Waris Husain, lawyer and a researcher at the Washington D.C. based Middle East Institute told IPS.

He says if a society progresses to the point that it rejects the death penalty, then the court or parliament could reflect that. “Unfortunately, there isn’t this thrust in public support to change the death penalty especially in the face of terrorism.”

 
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