It was a setback to all anti death penalty campaigners in Pakistan when Army soldier Muhammad Hussain was recently hanged to death in Mianwali jail after rejection of his mercy petitions by the Army Chief and President of Pakistan. This capital punishment also marked an apparent break in the de facto moratorium on executions observed by the PPP led coalition government since December 2008.
Muhammad Hussain was sentenced to death by military court martial four years ago for murdering a senior non commissioned officer. His execution led to an official condemnation by French foreign ministry which called for renewal of the temporary hold on executions and abolishing the death sentence in Pakistan. While the French termed this capital punishment as “step backwards in Pakistan’s move towards greater respect for human rights”, this constituted uncalled for interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs.
Hussain is not the first Army man to meet such a fate as serving Army officers, too, in past faced court martial on murder charges and were awarded death sentences. In February 1984 an Army Major went to the gallows for murdering his wife in Quetta. In 1996, another Major underwent capital punishment for the 1992 Tando Bahawal ( Sindh) carnage involving murder of few innocent villagers who were portrayed as terrorists.
No Army can maintain its structural strength and integrity without a credible and effective system of justice and accountability. That the Army’s internal legal mechanism is fair, across the board as well as ruthless is evident from the institution’s zero tolerance towards serious and major offences involving attempted military coups, externally motivated subversion, corruption or crime like murder.
While high profile cases of death sentence /jail term awarded by military courts are reported in media, other major cases involving breach of military discipline resulting in severe punishments like premature retirement/ dismissal from service, also need to be made public. This would help counter the misperception in certain quarters that military’s accountability was non transparent and selective.
Pakistani jails seem to be over flowing with 7000 to 8000 condemned prisoners probably the largest death row population in the world. When terrorists and serial target killers know that they will not be hanged, then Pakistanis should bear the consequences as witnessed in Karachi where murderers rule the streets and around 2000 people became victims of well orchestrated violence in 2012.
Shockingly, about three dozen dangerous convicts were mysteriously released on ‘parole’, though the previous Chief Minister Sindh, Arbab Rahim’s administration is blamed for this grave lapse. But then, what steps did the present Sindh government take to re arrest these killers and bring them to justice.
It cannot be denied that many convicts on death row may be innocent victims of false testimonies or circumstances that are typical ofour flawed legal system supported by corrupt police with its poor investigations and weak prosecutions. But then all mercy petitions end up on President’s table after the convicts exhaust their legal options in the High Court and Supreme Court.
It is a fact that during prolonged imprisonment while facing murder trial or filing appeals against conviction that usually drag on for many years, many prisoners undergo physical / mental disabilities. Are such convicts not entitled to relief on humanitarian grounds?
Will the hanging of Mumbai prime accused Ajmal Kasab save Indian national Sarabjeet Singh from going to the gallows in Pakistan? The execution of Ajmal Kasab whose plea for clemency was rejected by President of India may intensify President Zardari’s dilemma who could face strong domestic opposition if he decides to commute Sarabjit Singh’s death sentence into life imprisonment or even pardon him. Reportedly Sarabajit who has spent over 21 years in death cell, filed fresh mercy petition seeking the President’s pardon.
Sarabjit had illegally crossed into Pakistan in August 1990 and was sentenced to death for involvement in string of bombings in Pakistani cities that led to loss of many lives. For the PPP government, Sarbajit Singh’s release is critical as it could pave way for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s long awaited visit to Pakistan.
Earlier on the government of Pakistan released Indian national Surjeet Singh in June 2012 to reciprocate the Indian Supreme Court/ government’s humanitarian release of 80 year old Pakistani scientist Dr. Pervez Khalil Chishti. Surjeet was awarded death sentence in 1985 on spying charges that was later commuted to life imprisonment in 1989 by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
Does Muhammad Hussain’s hanging indicate the government’s intention to lift its informal ban on carrying out death sentences? Or will the government maintain the freeze, barring this odd exception, to continue appeasing the west and human rights bodies in country and abroad?
Awaiting the gallows may be more painful than the actual event itself. Since end 2008 a complete stalemate persists in which executions in general continue to be stayed with the President neither commuting any death sentence to life imprisonment or pardoning any death row convict.
There is a need for a comprehensive public/ media debate to examine the ramifications of abolishing death penalty on Pakistan’s social fabric that is already torn apart by the negative fallouts of war against terrorism. If credible deterrence like the death penalty is replaced with life sentence for crimes like terrorism/ murder/ rape/ kidnapping for ransom, would it not promote chaos and anarchy in the country?
The government remains ambiguous on abolishing the death penalty, an issue that is considered highly sensitive and therefore warrants careful handling. Any move to introduce the anti death penalty legislation in parliament is likely to meet stiff opposition from the right wing / religious political parties on the grounds that it violates the Islamic/ Sharia laws. The Supreme Court may eventually be forced to intervene to restore the due process of law.
More important is the question- should the present parliament and government which will soon complete their five year term and have lost their moral legitimacy, be given the right to take such a decision that has far reaching consequences for our society?
The writer is a columnist for The News. This is a cross post from the paper.