Rethinking the death penalty

October 10, 2021

There are as many as 29 women on death row. One of them has been convicted of blasphemy

Rethinking the death penalty

As the world observes the day against capital punishment on October 10 (today) Pakistan has 29 women on death row following conviction on charges of murder, kidnapping and blasphemy.

October 10 was declared the World Day Against Death Penalty during the final declaration of the First World Congress Against the Death Penalty in 2001. It resulted in the creation of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty a year later. The Coalition is an alliance of more than 160 non-government organisations, bar associations, local authorities and unions, including Justice Project Pakistan, an NGO working for prisoners’ rights.

It is a day that unifies the global abolitionist movement and gives an opportunity to the stakeholders to highlight issues and raise awareness against the death penalty. It puts pressure on the states that have retained capital punishment to abolish it and calls for a permanent end to death penalties and executions in the world.

Each year, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty chooses a theme. This year’s theme is: Women and the death penalty: An invisible reality. The day is dedicated to women who risk being sentenced to death, who have received a death sentence, who have been executed, and to those who have had their death sentences commuted, exonerated or pardoned.

According to the latest statistics, there is a total of 3,831 prisoners on death row in Pakistan. Out of them, 2,902 are in the Punjab (2,879 men and 23 women); 363 in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, including one woman; 519 in Sindh, including five women; and 47 men in Balochistan. Overall, the population of female prisoners in Pakistan till September was 1,391 including 933 in the Punjab, 243 in Sindh, 185 in KP, and 30 in Balochistan.

Salma Tanveer, a former college principal, is the latest addition to the list of women on death row. A district court in Lahore recently awarded her death penalty under Section 295-C of the Penal Code. Mrs Tanveer is the first Muslim woman in Pakistan awarded the death penalty for blasphemy. A relative says her family is getting neglected and her daughter, in her 20s, is mentally disturbed.

Observed every October 10, the World Day Against the Death Penalty unifies the global abolitionist movement and mobilises civil society, political leaders, lawyers, public opinion and more to support the call for the universal abolition of capital punishment.

Superior courts have recently acquitted two Christian women – Asia Bibi and Shagufta Bibi – in two cases of blasphemy conviction. Asia says she still feels guilty and bad for the nine years she was in jail as her two daughters were poorly treated in her absence. Shagufta’s four children have been reunited with her after eight years.

Recently, the trial of another Christian woman, Shagufta Kiran, has commenced in Islamabad on the charge of blasphemy. Earlier this year, Kanizan Bibi, a prisoner who has been suffering from schizophrenia, had her death sentence commuted by a landmark Supreme Court judgment.

A 2018 study by Agnes Callamard, titled Judged for More Than Her Crime found that “Women in conflict with the law are particularly vulnerable to abuse and other rights violations, either at the police station, during trial or while incarcerated. Women are more likely than men to be illiterate, which affects their ability to understand and participate in their own defence.”

Observed every October 10, the World Day Against the Death Penalty unifies the global abolitionist movement and mobilises civil society, political leaders, lawyers, public opinion and more to support the call for the universal abolition of capital punishment. The day encourages and consolidates the political and general awareness of the worldwide movement against the death penalty.

Cornell Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide estimates that there are at least 800 women sentenced to death around the world. Seven countries are known to have sentenced a woman to death in 2020: Ghana, Japan, Maldives, Taiwan, Thailand, USA, Zambia. Disaggregated data is not available for several countries including Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In 2020, amongst the 483 individuals who were executed, 16 were women located in Egypt, Iran, Oman and Saudi Arabia. Till now, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Another 28 countries are abolitionist in practice and 55 retentionist. In 2020, five countries that carried out the most executions were: China, Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.


The author is a staff reporter. He can be reached at [email protected]     Twitter: @waqargillani

Rethinking the death penalty