'Having public executions or death penalty for child sexual abuse will adversely affect efforts to protect children'

February 16, 2020

The News on Sunday interviews Sarah Belal for her thoughts on death penalty for child abuse

Sarah Belal is the Founder and Executive Director of Justice Project Pakistan.

After a resolution was moved in the National Assembly by the State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Ali Muhammad Khan last Friday calling for public hanging of convicted child killers and rapists, there has been a lot of debate on what justice should look like given that many stories of child abuse have come to the fore recently. Even though public hangings have been declared unconstitutional in the past and the resolution stands rejected by the Pakistan Bar Council and disowned by the State Minister for Law and Justice Farogh Naseem, the resolution represents a moment of reckoning for us. The News on Sunday asks Sarah Belal, the executive director of Justice Project Pakistan to deconstruct what the resolution signifies, and shed light on the problems with society’s conceptions of justice

The News on Sunday: What does it mean for a resolution calling for public hanging of people guilty of child assault and murder of children to be presented in the National Assembly?

Sarah Belal: The resolution is a non-binding document, and has no legal force on standing. It only tells us about the state of mind of a few. Public hangings only brutalize a society.

It also shows the lack of knowledge about our Constitution and parliamentary history. The Senate Standing Committee on Law and Justice has already rejected a bill proposing public hanging for child abusers in 2018 after the inspector generals of prisons of the four provinces, Ministry of Law and Justice and Council of Islamic Ideology opposed such punishments.

TNS: In a society where mob lynchings happen and have been a problem, what are the repercussions of rooting for ‘justice’ to be made a spectacle?

SB: Retribution and violence are often proposed as simple answers to complex problems in our criminal justice system. However, as illustrated by the condemnation of the resolution by the State minister for human rights and other cabinet members as well as the civil society, there is substantial opposition to such a proposal both on the streets and in the parliament. And though Pakistan has carried out public executions in the past, there has been consistent opposition to the inhumane and cruel practice.

Public hanging adversely impacts the psycho-social well-being of children by immunising them to violence. The children who witness violence such as public hangings are more likely to reproduce it in later years. This is illustrated by the death of a 12-year-old boy in Iran in 2013. The boy was inspired by public executions he had witnessed in his home province of Kermanshah in Western Iran. He and his 8-year-old brother hung a rope over a lamp-post. Thereafter, he stood over a cart and tied the noose around his neck as his younger brother pushed the cart away which led to the tragic death.

In Pakistan, a nine-year-old boy in Rahim Yar Khan, Punjab, imitated the execution of Saddam Hussein after watching it on television and hung himself with a nylon rope.

While the debate surrounding the instatement of public hanging for child rape is framing it as a child protection measure, it is likely to have an extremely adverse impact on the well-being of Pakistani children who witness it. As public hangings in countries such as Iran are spectacles that are conducted in front of large jeering crowds, the children that view them are likely to perceive them as theatrical performances thereby becoming de-sensitised to the violence. As a result, they are more likely to reproduce such violence in later years.

TNS: Even though the Pakistan Bar Council has rejected the resolution, what would have been the dangers for victims/ survivors especially in cases where they are related to perpetrators and sexual abuse already carries stigma?

SB: Having public executions or death penalty for such crimes will adversely affect the efforts to protect our children from abuse and sexual violence because having such severe punishments will discourage the victims and their families to come forward and report the incidents of abuse, especially in cases where the perpetrator is related to the victim. The victims and their families will have to face immense family pressure to reach a settlement and the trial is bound to be longer and more traumatic for the victim. And if the death penalty is carried out, the victim may carry the burden for the rest of their lives.

Moreover, perpetrators will be more likely to kill their victims to avoid the death sentence in such cases.

TNS: Surely, if there has been so much talk about reading public hanging as the desire for a ‘certain’, ‘unavoidable’ and ‘befitting’ punishment to perpetrators or ‘visible justice’, there must be sentiment that can be rallied around preventive action to stop child abuse. How have we as a society fallen short in thinking about preventive measures?

SB: Calls for stricter and unavoidable punishment stem from the inaction of law enforcement agencies and the government in cases of sexual violence against children. It also is a matter of political point-scoring, where politicians seek headlines by promising public displays of punishment rather than preventive measures that take much longer and far more resources.

Certainty of punishment is a strong deterrent but having stricter punishments in place alone cannot stop child abuse. We need to sensitize our law enforcement agencies and judiciary on how to deal with cases of child abuse. We need to enact and enforce child protection legislation and mechanisms along with raising awareness on the rights of the child and rehabilitation programmes to curb child abuse.

TNS: Had the resolution not been rejected by the PBC and hypothetically had translated into a hard reality, what UN conventions would Pakistan be in violation of? What would it have cost us?

SB: As a member state of the United Nations (UN), the Government of Pakistan is bound to uphold the human rights standards enshrined under the UN international human rights treaties that it has ratified. This includes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The Human Rights Committee, the monitoring body of the ICCPR, has also stated that public hangings amount to a violation of human dignity under the Covenant.

In Resolution 2004/67, the UN Commission on Human Rights has urged states to ensure that where capital punishment occurs it shall not be carried out in public or in any degrading manner.

If Pakistan is to carry out public execution, it would face isolation and international condemnation from the international community.

Such an act will place us in violation of our obligations under the preferential GSP+ status and the international human rights mechanism. This will also overshadow the positive developments and steps taken by the government in order to reform its justice system.

'Public executions for child sexual abuse will adversely affect efforts to protect children'