Death penalty

October 12, 2021

The world has moved forward in the past couple of decades in terms of human rights and penalties given to criminals. There emerged – over the years and across the world – near-consensus...

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The world has moved forward in the past couple of decades in terms of human rights and penalties given to criminals. There emerged – over the years and across the world – near-consensus regarding the undesirability of the death penalty. Human-rights organisations have particularly taken a principled stand against the application of the death penalty against juveniles and the mentally ill. Unfortunately, Pakistan lifted a six-year moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, resulting in a high rate of execution within a couple of years. In just two years, from 2015 to 2017, Pakistan accounted for 13 percent of the executions carried out in the world. According to data, of 3,659 executions in the world, 479 were carried out in Pakistan. In 2015 alone, Pakistan executed 20 percent of the global executions. Even now, Pakistan has an unenviable distinction of retaining the largest reported death row in the world, with over 3,800 prisoners reported to be waiting on the death row in the country.

The judicial system in Pakistan continues to prescribe capital punishment for over 33 crimes including non-lethal offences. Over one-fourth of all death sentences worldwide are handed over in Pakistan alone. Punjab is leading in the number of women on death row. The judicial system in the country is disproportionately skewed against minorities and women who are already vulnerable in society. Even during trials, minorities and women find it challenging to advocate for their innocence as severe socio-economic deprivation coupled with widespread illiteracy diminishes their chances of getting a fair trial and a just verdict. Research has shown convincingly that the death penalty is not at all a major factor in reducing heinous crimes. There are so many other factors that determine an increase or decrease in crimes, and the death penalty does not appear to be a deciding contributor in crime reduction. If fear of the noose truly did deter would-be-murderers it would have shown up in the statistics by now.

Perhaps the clinching argument against the death penalty is the awesome power it hands to the state. Even if Pakistan were a perfectly-governed country, one should be wary of giving so much power to the government. But the reality is that our criminal justice system is deeply corrupt and inefficient. Torture of suspects is routine, defendants who cannot afford lawyers are given substandard representation and evidence is often planted or withheld. Marginalised and vulnerable segments of society are less knowledgeable and less empowered to navigate Pakistan’s existing criminal justice system. This World Day Against the Death Penalty (October 10) we were again reminded of the need to make meaningful improvements in our criminal justice system. Due process must prevail and the most vulnerable must not face any discrimination in this matter. If we insist on keeping the death penalty, it should be a punishment of the last resort, used only for very few crimes. There should be absolutely no question about the person’s guilt and death row prisoners have to be given access to competent legal help. At the moment, we are not doing very well on all these counts.

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