Abolitionists fight against the abusive use of the death penalty


By Thalia Gerzso, on 28 November 2017

A repressive legislation

Pakistan figures as one of the 56 retentionists countries. In 2014, the government put an end to a seven-year moratorium on executions to respond to the terrorist threat.  Since then, Pakistan is one of the most prolific executioners with 485 prisoners executed since December 2014 and an average of 4 executions a week. As November 2017, 8,200 prisoners, including mentally disabled people and juveniles, are waiting for their executions on Pakistani death row.  These prisoners were convicted on one of the 27 grounds punishable by death, including blasphemy offenses or sabotage of the railways system. In an Universal Periodic Review Joint Submission, Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), Reprieve, the World Organization Against Torture and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty also denounced coerced confessions and lack of effective representation which constitute a violation of international law. In its ICCPR review, the UN Human Rights Committee asked Pakistan to limit the scope of the death penalty, ensure that no juveniles or individuals with any disability are sentenced to death and amend the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Indeed, this legal arsenal is not an adequate answer to the rise of terrorism in the country.  According to Justice Project Pakistan, the death penalty is only used as a political tool: murder rates were already in decline before the moratorium was lifted.  In fact, the use of capital punishment has failed to deter crimes and reduce terrorist attacks. Furthermore, of the 485 executions recorded, only 30% were sentenced to death for terrorism. Because the criminal justice system has completely collapsed over the past few years, human rights organizations have urged Pakistan to stop the abusive use of the death penalty and restore a system which respects due process and fair trial rights.

A strong mobilization for the 15th World Day Against the Death Penalty

The abolitionist mobilization was particularly important for the 15th World Day Against the Death Penalty. On October 10, a dozen of events took place in the country. In addition to numerous press releases, the Human Rights Commission of  Pakistan organized a rally outside the Lahore Press Club. While carrying placards and World Day posters, the protesters asked the government to abolish the death penalty and reestablish the moratorium.  Members of the Human Rights Commission also distributed pamphlets aiming at explaining why the abolition is necessary.

For World Day, Justice Project Pakistan also targeted populations in a successful awareness campaign. In collaboration with Azad Theatre and Highlight Arts, JPP launched the “Bus Kar do” tour. For a week, the bus traveled from Sahiwal to Karachi and stopped in several cities to perform “Intezaar – the Wait”.  This theatre piece based on real cases aimed to highlight the discriminatory aspect of the death penalty and the harsh living conditions of death row prisoners waiting for their executions in Pakistani prisons. This tour gave an opportunity for the abolitionists to establish a dialogue with local communities, too often in favor the death penalty. “Unless we mobilize public support for reform in our criminal justice system, many are going to continue to slip through the cracks” stated Sarah Belal, Executive Director of JPP.

In addition to the Bus Kar Do Tour, JPP targeted media with a three-day campaign. Besides the release of three advocacy videos, the newspaper Dawn published the story of three families victims of the death penalty. Through storytelling, JPP wished to demonstrate how unfair and inadequate the death penalty is. It shared, for instance, the story of a mother whose son, Khizar, was arrested for the alleged murder of his best friend. Whereas Khizar’s mental illness and the lack of an effective legal assistance should have been construed as mitigating factors, the Court, nevertheless, sentenced the young men to death. The World Day mobilization paid off. According to a survey conducted by JPP following World Day, 93% of the respondents are opposed to the executions of juveniles and physically disabled, 64% would like to reduce the scope of the death penalty and 53% wish to restore the moratorium.

A successful commitment towards abolition

The action of the abolitionists, however, is not limited to the World Day Against the Death Penalty. In addition to their numerous advocacy campaigns, JPP also provides free legal assistance to death row prisoners. JPP attorneys were quite successful in their enterprise since they obtained the acquittal for two death row blasphemy cases and 12 stays of executions. Aware that legal representation is often an issue, JPP also released a legal manual for lawyers litigating torture and defending clients in blasphemy cases.  For the sake of transparency, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also released regular reports on death row prisoners and executions statistics. 

Thus, the statement from Pakistani authorities regarding the alleviation of the death penalty scope is the direct result of the important mobilization of the civil society. It can also be seen as a first step in the right direction. 

Image: The Nation

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