By Zeeba T Hashmi
December 24, 2014
During the time I spent at the UN, I experienced two major international blocks divided on the issue of human rights, showing huge differences on how the world views its conduct based on its social and constitutional norms. This is with special reference to the moratorium on the death penalty, subject to fiery discussions these days. The major conflict is between the European block and the Asian block where some countries still award capital punishment and carry out their executions. Although the moratorium was passed in December 2007, it is not binding on the nations involved. Following it means that nations have cordial relations with each other in good will and are set on the same page yet, at the same time, there are remnants of resentment as not all nations signed the pact, mainly because of their religious and customary beliefs. For example, in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, opposition comes in the garb of religion whereas there are links of heroin smuggling by the monarchy but those caught smuggling (mainly from the third world) are executed to protect the names of the influential in the drug mafia.
The moratorium on the death penalty was twice affirmed on December 18, 2007 in the UN General Assembly with 106 to 46 votes and 54 absentations. On December 21, 2010, the resolution was again passed with 109 countries in favour of it with 41 against it and 35 absentations. Though there had been vigorous efforts since 1999, the real diplomatic endeavour was witnessed in 2007 when it finally took shape as a resolution. The moratorium was first introduced by Italy and was strongly supported by the EU and New Zealand. It was presented with the logic that death penalties were imposed to score political gains, to conceal the names of perpetrators belonging to influential and important personalities and also because that there is no scientific link between executions and curbing of crime.
Pakistan signed the pact on December 18, 2007 after much deliberation and was synchronised with nations propagating a moratorium with the aim of complete abolishment of the death penalty in later stages. This helped Pakistan gain a little leverage on raising its human rights index, as there have been serious miscarriages of justice on account of its faulty laws that bring the onus on the accused and no accountability on the accuser for his/her allegations of the crimes that fall under the blasphemy laws and Hudood Ordinance, as witnessed in Aasia Bibi’s case. Legislatively, the previous government of Pakistan, the PPP, tended to do better until 2012 when a soldier serving on death row was executed.
The moratorium was officially lifted by the newly elected government of Nawaz Sharif following the horrendous attack on a school in Peshawar on December 16, 2015. This law will not make any difference, as militants have always been freed from courts of law for “lack of evidence”. Scores of militants have been freed as a gesture of good will for talks with the Taliban. Instead, the lifting of the moratorium will cause serious repercussions on executing those who have been wrongfully accused. Whether there is a consensus on imposition of the moratorium or not, it goes in favour of Pakistan on both ethical and diplomatic grounds. Where there are cases of miscarriage of justice, taking the life of the wrongly accused cannot be undone, placing Pakistan in double jeopardy over its human rights record. There have been reports of judges getting death threats for awarding the death sentence. This lifting of the moratorium will not bring any change; rather, it will further victimise the helpless who have been wrongfully accused and sentenced to death.
During one of my interviews with the locals of Swat, where the military operation took place against militants, many complained of their missing persons, amounting to almost 12,000 persons, or of their relatives unjustly convicted of terrorism when they were taken and recruited by force by the Taliban to fight with them at the cost of the lives of their families. Their main agitation was why the masterminds and the most wanted Taliban had not been pursued, caught, tried or released without any charge while the lower tier of the Taliban, forced to fight against their will at gunpoint, were being held as terrorists. The state of Pakistan remains silent over this issue and has done nothing so far.
Nothing can be a graver sin than taking away the life of the innocent. No country can progress unless it amends its laws that can ensure the protection and acquittal of the wrongfully accused. Imposing the death sentence, as has been scientifically proven, does not help in curbing crime as it still exists despite punishments. The justice system should not be based on the principles of revenge; in fact, it should be so to avoid future crimes from occurring and settle disputes. The only way to curb crime is through a fundamental change in the system rather than putting the onus of it on an individual.
What moral repercussions could the judiciary face for falsely sentencing death to the accused? Currently, there are about 8,000 inmates serving on death row. Though it might not be appropriate to state that all verdicts have been unjustified, there is a huge dilemma because of the debatable and loose laws of Pakistan, as we see in case of Aasia Bibi in which the onus of responsibility is on the accused to bring her defence, not on the prosecutor who may just orally claim blasphemy, even without producing any viable proof or by forging evidence, and walk away free.
Deterrence from crime in any society can only be brought about by checks and balances, monitoring and vigilant law and order. Such, unfortunately, is not in place in Pakistan but this should not mean that the death penalty should be used as a justification for lack of proper legal facilitation. Life is a gift of God and sending someone to the gallows, who has committed no crime, is a crime in itself.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org