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(New York) – The Pakistani government should reinstate its moratorium on the death penalty following its troubling return to the dwindling ranks of countries imposing capital punishment. On November 15, 2012, military authorities hanged Muhammad Hussain, an army soldier convicted of murder, at Mianwali jail in Punjab province.

The hanging ended Pakistan’s widely hailed unofficial moratorium on the death penalty that had been in place since 2008, Human Rights Watch said. According to official figures, Pakistan has more than 7,000 prisoners on death row, one of the largest populations of prisoners facing execution in the world.   

“After a four-year unofficial moratorium, Pakistan has reverted to the odious practice of sending people to the gallows,” said Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the government should declare an official moratorium, commute all existing death sentences, and then abolish the death penalty for all crimes once and for all.”

On February 12, 2009, a court martial in Okara Cantonment sentenced Hussain to death for murdering his superior, Havaldar Khadim Hussain, in 2008. He subsequently filed mercy petitions to the army’s General Headquarters and the chief of army staff, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, but they were rejected. Hussain’s final mercy petition to President Asif Ali Zardari was rejected on December 30, 2011.

The Pakistani government is sending mixed messages about the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said. On November 2, Zardari’s spokesperson, Farhatullah Babar, had told the media that the government has been “considering converting death sentences into life imprisonment and is taking appropriate legislative measures for the purpose.”

The governing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has repeatedly stated that it is opposed to the death penalty. The PPP’s founder and former prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by military authorities on trumped-up charges in 1979.

Human Rights Watch wrote to Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in June 2008 and met with him the following month urging action to abolish the death penalty and to impose a moratorium pending abolition. Soon after military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf was ousted from office in August 2008, the government imposed a de facto moratorium on judicial executions.

Government officials speaking on condition of anonymity told Human Rights Watch that Hussain’s execution had been carried out under pressure from military authorities as Husain had been convicted by a military rather than a civilian court.

While under military rule, Pakistan each year executed among the highest number of people of any country. For example, according to Amnesty International, in 2005 Pakistan sentenced more than 241 people to death and executed at least 31, the fifth highest total in the world.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment. A majority of countries in the world have abolished the practice. On December 18, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution by a wide margin calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions.

“Hussain’s execution derails one of the Pakistani government’s most tangible human rights successes,” Hasan said. “It is essential the government demonstrate that this execution was an aberration rather than a return to the widespread application of the death penalty under military rule.”  

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