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Human Rights

Pakistan’s Return to Death Penalty Contravenes International Treaties

PESHAWAR, Dec 24 2014 (IPS) - Pakistan’s announcement that it has lifted the moratorium on the death penalty in response to the Dec. 16 attack on the Army Public School and College in Peshawar continues to draw severe criticism from human rights groups, which say that this contravenes international treaties signed by Pakistan.

“We are extremely concerned over the death penalty for Shafqat Hussain, who is likely to be among those facing execution by hanging,” Clive Stafford Smith, director of the UK-based rights group Reprieve, told IPS in an email interview.

Shafqat Hussain, then 14, was working as a watchman in Karachi when seven-year-old Umair Shah went missing from the neighbourhood in April 2004. A few days later, Umair’s family received calls from Hussain’s mobile phone demanding a ransom of Rs500, 000 (7,800 dollars) for the boy’s release, according to Hussain’s lawyers.

“We are extremely concerned over the death penalty for Shafqat Hussain [convicted while still only 15 ], who is likely to be among those facing execution by hanging” – Clive Stafford Smith, director of Reprieve

Police arrested Hussain, who admitted to kidnapping and killing Umair, whose body had been recovered from a nearby stream.

Stafford Smith said that Hussain later withdrew his confession because it had been made under duress, but an anti-terrorism court sentenced him to death although Hussain was only 15 at the time. He called for suspension of Hussain’s death penalty in view of the fact that Pakistan is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of Child, which prohibits the death penalty for children.

Amnesty International echoed similar concerns over Pakistan’s decision to resume the death penalty in response to the attack on the Army Public School and College which killed 148 – mostly children – and said that Hussain should have been tried in a juvenile court and not been given the death penalty, which cannot be imposed on minors in Pakistan.

Chiara Sangiorgio of Amnesty International said that Hussain’s case was not isolated because there were at least seven other death row prisoners who claimed to be under 18 when they committed their offences. Two had been convicted by anti-terrorism courts.

“The majority of people in Pakistan do not have a birth certificate, so it becomes very difficult for them to prove that they are juvenile … unless they have a good lawyer,” she said.

In a statement, Human Rights Watch pointed out that Hussain’s family had sent an appeal to the president to commute his sentence to life imprisonment, but to no avail. It deplored the fact that Hussain is now set to be executed after the lifting of moratorium.

On Dec. 24, the European Union (EU) also criticised the lifting of the moratorium on the death penalty and called for its immediate reinstatement.

“We believe that the death penalty is not an effective tool in the fight against terrorism,” said EU envoy to Pakistan Lars-Gunnar Wigemark in a statement. “The EU remains opposed to the death penalty in all circumstances and expresses hope that the moratorium will be re-established at the earliest.”

The government has already executed six convicted militants in Punjab province – on Dec. 19 and 21 – including those involved in attacks on former President General Pervez Musharraf in December 2003 and the Pakistan Army’s General Headquarters in October 2009, as part of its announced policy to speed up execution of death row inmates.

On Dec. 21, Pakistan’s Interior Minister Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan announced that the government plans to execute about 500 prisoners on death row in the coming weeks as revenge for the death of schoolchildren in the Peshawar attack.

“Terrorists deserve no mercy as they are killing our people, soldiers and schoolchildren,” Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif told a meeting of all political parties in Islamabad on Dec. 24. Come what may, we will go ahead with our plans of hanging the condemned prisoners, Sharif told the meeting.

Reprieve, which spearheads the anti-death penalty campaign, notes that Pakistan has also signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which prohibits execution and therefore Pakistan must reinstate the moratorium in fulfilment of its international commitment.

“Killing a man who was arrested as a juvenile and tortured into a ‘confession’ will not bring justice and will merely add to the tragedy of the Peshawar school attack,” Clive said.

Meanwhile, Sarah Belal of Justice Project Pakistan quoted Hussain’s older brother Gul Zaman as telling reporters outside  Karachi prison: “The authorities applying the death penalty to terrorists, no problem for me, but they’re going down the wrong road executing ordinary criminals.”

(Edited by Phil Harris)

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