(New York) – Pakistan’s government should reinstate its moratorium on the death penalty as a step toward its abolition, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 17, 2014, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif rescinded a four-year unofficial moratorium on capital punishment in response to the December 16 attack by the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Tehreek-e-Taliban on a school in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan that left at least 148 dead – almost all of them children.
The prime minister’s statement abolished the moratorium on the death penalty for non-military personnel “in terrorism related cases,” instituted by then-President Asif Ali Zardari in 2008. As of July 2014 there were 800 people on death row in Pakistan for “terrorism” convictions and another 17,000 people undergoing prosecution for alleged terrorism offenses.
“Reinstating the death penalty is a flawed and reckless response to the horrific Peshawar attack,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The Peshawar attack demands government action to actually address the security threat posed by militant groups, not a knee-jerk reaction that will result in more needless deaths.”
A joint report issued earlier in December by the nongovernmental human rights organizations Justice Project Pakistan and Reprieve concluded that the high number of people on death row for terrorism-related convictions reflects an “overuse” of anti-terrorism laws by Pakistan’s security forces and judiciary. The report states that “instead of being reserved for the most serious cases of recognisable acts of terror, the anti-terror legislation is in fact being used to try ordinary criminal cases, either in a deliberate attempt to evade the procedural safeguards guaranteed by ordinary courts or due to the vague and overly broad definitions of ‘terrorism’ in the legislation.”
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty. Pakistan’s use of the death penalty is inconsistent with international human rights law, according to statements of United Nations human rights experts and various UN bodies. Human rights law upholds every human being’s “inherent right to life” and limits the death penalty to “the most serious crimes,” typically crimes resulting in death. Pakistan should join with the many countries already committed to the UN General Assembly’s December 18, 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and a move by UN member countries toward abolition of the death penalty.
“The death penalty is an inherently cruel and irrevocable punishment that won’t protect civilians from attackers on suicide missions,” Kine said. “The Pakistan government can take a powerful symbolic stand against the mass murder in Peshawar by reaffirming its opposition to killing and immediately reinstating the death penalty moratorium.”