(New York) – The Pakistani government should order an immediate stop to executions of death-row prisoners for terrorism-related offenses, Human Rights Watch said today. The government executed two convicted militants in Punjab province on December 19, 2014, as an explicit reaction to the December 16 attack by the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP) on a school in Peshawar in northwestern Pakistan that left at least 148 dead – almost all of them children.
“Pakistan’s government has chosen to indulge in vengeful blood-lust instead of finding and prosecuting those responsible for the horrific Peshawar attack,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “The government’s death penalty spree is a craven politicized reaction to the Peshawar killings that will do nothing to bring the attackers to justice.”
Punjab Home Minister Shuja Khanzada described the executions of the two men, Mohammed Aqeel and Arshad Mahmood, as a means to “boost the morale of the nation” and said that more executions would follow. Aqeel was reportedly convicted for his alleged role in a 2009 attack on army headquarters while Mahmood was linked to an assassination plot against the former president, Pervez Musharraf.
On December 18 Pakistan’s military chief, Army Gen. Raheel Sharif, signed death warrants for six “hard-core terrorists.” Pakistan media reported that the government plans to execute at least 55 people convicted on terrorism-related charges as part of the response to the Peshawar attack. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who rescinded a four-year unofficial moratorium on capital punishment in response to the attack, considers death sentences essential for “deterrence and establishment of peace,” Pakistan’s Business Recorder newspaper reported.
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 or grievous injury. Pakistan should join with the many countries already committed to the UN General Assembly’s 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on executions and a move by UN member countries toward abolition of the death penalty.
In the aftermath of the Peshawar attack, the Pakistan military has also apparently intensified its ongoing operations against alleged militants in the Khyber region. The military has conducted similar operations in North Waziristan since June with severe restrictions on media access to confirm military accounts of militant activity and allegations of civilian casualties.
A December 19 media story said that the government is considering the use of military courts to ensure the “speedy trial of terrorists.”
As a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Pakistan is obligated to uphold and take measures to ensure basic fair trial rights. Governments are prohibited from using military courts to try civilians when the regular courts are functioning. The Human Rights Committee, the international expert body that monitors state compliance with the ICCPR, has stated in its General Comment on the right to a fair trial that “the trial of civilians in military or special courts may raise serious problems as far as the equitable, impartial, and independent administration of justice is concerned.”
“Misusing military courts, a resumption of executions, and denying media access to conflict areas is a recipe for renewed human rights violations rather than a rights-respecting response to militant atrocities,” Kine said. “The Pakistan government should respect the memory of the Peshawar massacre victims by upholding the rule of law for which the attackers showed such contempt.”