Friday, August 31, 2007

The Issue of Death Penalty in Pakistan

COMMENT: The death of compassion —Rafia Zakaria
Daily Times, September 1, 2007

On August 28, 2007, Amnesty International issued an urgent alert asking human rights activists around the world to take action against the imminent execution of Muhammad Ali, 45, a Pakistani citizen on death row. Ali was sentenced to death in 1998 and his first and second appeals were rejected by the high courts. In 2006, his final appeal was rejected by the Pakistan Supreme Court. A 15-day stay of execution order expired on August 24, 2007, and it is likely that a new death warrant will be issued in the next two weeks. If Ali’s family is unable to negotiate a settlement with the family of the victim, he will be executed.

News reports suggest that over 7,400 people are on death row in Pakistan which, according to Amnesty International, makes up almost one-third of the entire world’s death row population of 24,000. In addition, Pakistan is one of the few countries left in the world which still executes juveniles. Despite the fact that President General Pervez Musharraf signed the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance in 2000, reports from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan assert that juveniles continue to be executed. In a particularly appalling case, on November 30, 2004, Rehmat Ali alias Raja from Lodhran, Punjab, was executed despite being only nine years of age.

Advocates of the death penalty in Pakistan cite several reasons for upholding it. Primary among these are the ubiquitous imperatives of revenge and retribution. According to their logic, centred on the adage of an eye for an eye, anyone who has been found guilty of killing someone must face a similar end. Just as the life of the innocent victim was extinguished unceremoniously and unexpectedly, so must the life of the criminal. The more grotesque and cruel the death of the victim, the more deserving the criminal is of this ultimate punishment. In an ironic turn, the argument for respecting the life of the deceased is turned on its head to justify the killing of the accused: to truly respect life, they say, one must be willing to take a life.

The principle of retribution is a universal one, used all over the world to justify the imposition of the death penalty. In the context of the Pakistani justice system, however, specific dimensions of the application of the death penalty need to be evaluated. First among these is the reality that the death penalty is applied unequally across economic classes. The basis of this unequal application of the death penalty have been the Qisas and Diyat Ordinances of 1990-1992 which have made it possible for those who have superior material means to evade facing execution for their crimes. This class dimension is most blatantly obvious in situations where a wealthy person is indicted for killing a poor one: the abject conditions of the poor person’s family make it all but impossible for them to refuse blood money, and once they do, the crime itself is effectively eradicated.

It is not surprising therefore that the vast number of people on death row in Pakistan are the destitute and hapless poor. Nusrat Hussain Mangan, a superintendent at the Central Jail in Karachi, who recently managed to raise enough money to save the lives of three people sentenced to death for separate road accidents, says of the men: “not one was a ‘criminal’. They were so poor that their families could not arrange for the money, and their employers refused to bail them out”. According to another senior prison official, “there are cases that get disposed off even before the crime gets registered in the police station; huge sums are exchanged in connivance with the police and officials”. The efforts of Mangan to raise diyat money to set free poor prisoners illustrate how laws such as Qisas and Diyat, which theoretically could be used to eliminate the death penalty altogether, are used instead as a get out of jail free card by the rich, leaving the poor to face execution. Every time Mangan asks for diyat donations for any one of his 107 death row inmates, he is asked “why do you want to save a murderer?” or “The court has sentenced him...who are you to interfere!”

The questions faced by Mangan and his supporters are indicative of the social resistance toward the idea of abolishing the death penalty. Despite being aware of the inadequacies of the justice system in Pakistan, few people bother to confront the disturbing possibility that many of the 7,400 people facing executions could be innocent. The elite and educated, smug in the knowledge that they will never face such a situation, simply turn their backs to the matter. The inescapable tragedy of an innocent man, languishing in jail for a crime that he did not commit, fails to pull at their heartstrings or make any demands of their moral conscience. After all, their lives are not at stake.

This pervasive failure to ignore the continuing travesties of justice surrounding the death penalty in Pakistan is symbolic of an even more macabre condition: the unfortunate and untimely death of compassion in Pakistani society. While the state machinery continues to be implicated in taking the lives of Pakistani citizens — not because they are guilty but because they are poor — the moral and sociological implications of such a disaster remain unquestioned and un-debated upon. So worthless are the lives of these citizens who sit on death row that the vast majority of 160 million Pakistanis continue to ignore their plight.

I began this piece by mentioning the plight of Muhammad Ali, one such Pakistani citizen. The urgent action issued by Amnesty International on his behalf will be distributed internationally and many around the world will write to President Pervez Musharraf asking him to commute the sentence. I can only wonder how many of these will be my fellow Pakistanis.

The details of the action can be found at

Rafia Zakaria is an attorney living in the United States where she teaches courses on Constitutional Law and Political Philosophy. She can be contacted at

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