As the rights groups are shocked by this sudden penchant for public execution, the real questions are brushed under the carpet
Haji Ameen Ansari, the father of seven-year-old rape victim, Zainab Ansari, wants his daughter’s killer to be "stoned to death" in public.
"That’s the Islamic way of punishing the man for the way he killed my innocent daughter," he tells The News on Sunday, from his hometown in Kasur, in Punjab, over phone.
Zainab’s body was found in a garbage heap a mile from her home on January 11, while her parents were on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Twenty-four year old Mohammad Imran confessed to raping and killing Zainab as well as seven other girls.
Punjab Chief Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, announcing the arrest of the "serial killer" at a press conference, two weeks later, on January 23, said he wished, the culprit would be hanged publicly, adding cautiously, "only if the law permitted". This would help stem such incidents, set an example for others, he said, emphasising, "if there is need to change the law, it should be done".
A day after Imran’s arrest, a Senate committee proposed amendment in the Pakistan Penal Code’s Section 364-A, recommending public execution of convicts involved in sexual abuse and murder of children below the age of 14.
At the moment punishment under Section 364-A reads: "Whoever kidnaps or abducts any person under the [age of 14] in order that such person may be murdered or subjected to grievous hurt… or to the lust of any person [sic] shall be punished with death."
Rights groups are shocked by this sudden penchant for public execution.
"It’s outrageous and a clear violation of the Article 14 of Pakistan’s Constitution which guarantees ‘the inviolability of the dignity of man’," says Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and country representative of the Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Revulsed, the secretary general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, I.A. Rehman found the "revelation of diseased and brutalisation of the minds of legislators and senators" even more shocking and the recommendation for amendment to the law "foolish".
Contrary to the justification given by the proponents of public executions that the latter will act as a deterrent, Ijaz finds this brutal form of spectacle punishment "nothing but absurd".
Today, as leaders realise that public execution is not a deterrent to crimes, more and more countries are joining the league abolishing death penalty, making space for those practicing public executions narrower.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are two countries where people continue to get executed publicly, yet it has not stopped people from committing heinous crimes nor has there been an appreciable decline in them.
According to Ali Madeeh Hashmi, associate professor of psychiatry at King Edward Medical University, "public hangings can adversely affect people’s mental health, especially children in many negative ways." He finds this form of punishment exceedingly "barbaric and inhuman" and in a few cases, where people who watched the spectacle, tried to re-enact them with fatal consequences.
Like the rights groups, he, too, is appalled by the stance taken by the head of the province for amendment in the law which he finds "ludicrous". To him, apart from "satisfying" some people’s "blood lust", public executions served no useful purpose.
He says it was sad and disgraceful that the elected officials caved in to public pressure and want to bring it back. "In our own country, it was a gift of the Zia dictatorship and it did nothing but make our society even more inured to violence," he reminds, adding: "Zainab’s alleged killer deserves a fair trial, not public lynching."
Javeria Younes, lawyer with the Peace and Justice Project, in Islamabad, who has done extensive work on reforms in the criminal justice system, has observed that public executions become rampant whenever there is "collapse of the rule of law". The aim, she says, is to shock and awe the masses into subjugation like in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria.
To HRW’s Ijaz, it demonstrates an "egregious abuse of power where the state wants to instill fear through violence and to say killing in public space is acceptable," and warns, "it may prompt people to lynch."
"The death penalty legitimises an irreversible act of violence by the state and will inevitably claim innocent lives. As long as human justice remains fallible, the risk of executing an innocent can never be eliminated. It’s the absolute surety of being punished that deters crime, not the death penalty," says Younes. And given that DNA has been ruled as inadmissible (it is not considered as primary evidence but as a corroboratory one) by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, she is worried the "probability of an innocent person being hanged increases".
She further adds, "When governments are losing popular votes they fan popular sentiments and use it to garner support for next election," while referring to the general elections that will be held later this year in Pakistan.
"It’s vote pandering of the worst kind," agrees Ijaz.
Younes says Pakistan’s criminal justice system (CJS) was flawed and did "ensure guilty beyond doubt" verdict. "From investigation to prosecution each tier of CJS is mired in inefficiency and incompetency." She cites the case where last year two Ghulam brothers in Sialkot were found innocent after they were hanged. "In such circumstances can justice be served?"
To protect children from perpetrators of abuse, Younes says there is need for a comprehensive sexual education to be included in the national curriculum. "We are living in a fool’s paradise if we believe that sex education is against our cultural and Islamic values." Moreover, she adds, there are segments within the Pakistani society who devour online pornography. "What do we attribute this behaviour to? The Kasur child pornography ring catered to a demand for such sleaze, so why single out an individual when the whole society is at fault?"
And that’s what Hashmi and his team had observed when they visited Kasur. His department was sought out by the Punjab police to visit Kasur to help psychologically profile the perpetrator before he was caught, where they "interviewed witnesses and survivors, reviewed the evidence, talked to the officers investigating the case" and gave their opinion.
"Kasur as a society and as a community is steeped in child sexual abuse and every third person in that community has been a victim and many have become abusers themselves," he says.
"Why is there no outrage about that? I have heard press reports that the alleged killer himself was abused multiple times over a number of years. This is typical. Victims often become abusers themselves. Why is no one demanding that all victims in Kasur be provided emergency mental healthcare and rehabilitation. Why is the CM not announcing an emergency mental health task force to address this trans-generational problem? Why is there no talk of setting up special clinics and crisis centres in Kasur to help those people?"
That’s the real emergency and that’s the real question that needs to be answered," says Hashmi in a tone laced with seriousness.