The year 2017 was Pakistan’s year of accountability on human rights. In April, Pakistan was reviewed by the UN Committee on Torture, in July by the UN Human Rights Committee on its compliance of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) – and this month, the Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Committee.
In the aftermath of the ICCPR review, the committee issued 22 recommendations, which include that Pakistan take steps to ensure that the rights in the covenant are in full effect; improve support systems for survivors of gender-based violence; review and repeal certain sections of the Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997; limit the scope of the death penalty; and ensure that no person under 18 years of age when an offence occurred, or with any disability, is subjected to the death penalty, amongst others.
The committee stated that Article 6 of the ICCPR should reflect the international trend towards abolition of the death penalty and added that if the granting of the death penalty is based on information acquired by torture, it violates Articles 6, 7 and 14 of the ICCPR.
As a party to the treaty, Pakistan must listen to these recommendations which it needs to abide by if it does not want to be in violation of not only the treaty but fundamental human rights as well.
Currently, Pakistan has 27 capital offences, many of which are not “most serious crimes”, as outlined by the ICCPR. These offences include drug offences, treason, adultery, and others. For example, sabotage of the railways system is a capital offence, but according to the committee, it falls under “vague offences”, and violates the ICCPR. Another is the ATA, which has a broad definition of terrorism and allows law enforcement to book people on offences that have little to do with actual terrorism.
Since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 2014, Pakistan has carried out 485 executions. At the time, the government stated that the death penalty would be used in cases related to terrorism, but in March 2015 it lifted the moratorium on all capital offences. Of the 485 executions, only 30 percent were convicted of terrorism.
Not only is this a problem because Pakistan expanded the death penalty but, given Pakistan’s broken criminal justice system, there are too many innocents who fall through the cracks as Pakistan continues to violate the ICCPR. There are many who have either been executed, or wrongfully convicted and are also mentally ill and/or physically disabled.
When questioned on the death penalty, the Pakistani delegation’s responses were that it is used to deter crime and it was a national consensus that it be used. However, the data shows otherwise. According to Justice Project Pakistan, Punjab accounts for 83 percent of executions and 89 percent of death sentences in Pakistan. However, it only had a 9.7 percent drop in murder rates from 2015-2016. Sindh had a drop of 25 percent during the same time – even though it had 18 executions compared to Punjab’s 382.
In India the perpetrators of the gang rape of Jyoti Singh in 2012 were sentenced to death, but from January–April 2014, 616 rape cases were registered in Delhi according to the Delhi police. In May 2017, the General Secretary of the National Federation of Indian Women, Annie Raja, stated that the “death penalty is not enough to prevent such heinous crimes.”
For the argument that the death penalty curbs terrorism, research shows that terrorists are resistant to deterrence by punishment as many are committing suicide. Upon executions, their political objectives are vindicated. The argument that the moratorium was lifted with a national consensus is a stretch. The political parties agreed, after APS, to implement a strategy to combat terrorism. But, according to MNA Shazia Marri of the PPP, there was an opposition within parliament regarding the expansion of the death penalty in 2015.
According to a focus group conducted during JPP’s campaign during World Day Against the Death Penalty, 93 percent of the respondents said ‘no’ to juveniles and physically disabled people being sentenced to death. Sixty-four percent said ‘yes’ to reducing the scope of the death penalty and 53 percent said ‘yes’ to the moratorium being restored until Pakistan corrects the faults within the justice system.
What Pakistan needs to do now is implement these recommendations. We should start with reducing the scope of the death penalty straightaway if we want to lose the macabre accolade of retaining the world’s largest death row. Pakistan must treat this as an emergency, restore the moratorium, and make changes to its criminal justice system immediately.
The writer works with Justice Project Pakistan, a human rights organisation based in Lahore.