(New York) – Pakistan’s government should immediately halt the apparent pending execution of an alleged child offender and commute his sentence
News reports suggest that Shafqat Hussain, who was 14 or 15 when sentenced in 2004 for kidnapping and killing a 7-year-old boy, is among the several hundred prisoners facing imminent execution in Pakistan. The United Kingdom-based human rights organization Reprieve issued a statement alleging that security forces in Pakistan’s Sindh province had tortured Hussain into confessing to the crime.
“Sending child offenders to the gallows is a monstrous government response to the vicious Peshawar school attack,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s apparent aim to execute someone for crimes allegedly committed as a child is an affront to basic decency, as well as a violation of children’s rights.”
Hussain’s looming execution follows the government’s decision on December 16, 2014 to rescind a four year unofficial death penalty moratorium for non-military personnel “in terrorism related cases.” That decision was an explicit government 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 children. The Pakistan government has already executed six convicted militants in Punjab province on December 19 and 21, 2014 as part of its announced policy to speed execution of death row inmates.
Pakistan has ratified both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which specifically prohibit capital punishment of anyone who was under 18 at the time of the offense. The prohibition is absolute. In July 2000 Pakistan issued a Juvenile Justice System Ordinance banning the death penalty for crimes by people under 18. However, the ordinance requires the existence of dedicated juvenile courts and other mechanisms not provided for by law in all parts of Pakistan, leaving juvenile offenders at risk of trial as adults in capital cases.
Human Rights Watch could last confirm Pakistan’s execution of an alleged child offender on June 13, 2006, when Peshawar authorities hanged Mutabar Khan. A trial court in Swabi had sentenced Khan to death on October 6, 1998 for the alleged murder of five people in April 1996. During his appeal, Khan provided the court with a school-leaving certificate to support his claim that he was 16 at the time of the killings, and contended that authorities knew he was a child because they held him in the juvenile wing of the Peshawar Central Prison for two years. Since Khan’s execution, only four other countries are known to have executed people for crimes committed as children: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment. Human rights law requires adherence to the right to a fair trial and limits the death penalty to “the most serious crimes,” typically crimes resulting in death or grievous bodily harm. 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.
A joint report issued in December by 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.”
Pakistan’s interior minister, Chaudry Nisar Ali Khan, announced on December 21 that the government intends to execute about 500 prisoners on death row in the next two to three weeks. Nasir sought to justify the mass executions as a recognition that Pakistan is in “a state of war” and necessary to “avenge to avenge the victims of the Peshawar attack.”
As part of that effort, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif instructed the attorney general to seek to overturn judicial stay orders on executions of prisoners convicted of terrorism-related offenses. Sharif described that move as part of a policy of “no mercy for those who have killed our children, citizens and soldiers.” That same day, Sharif said that he would extend ongoing military offensives in remote North Waziristan and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) to alleged militants “hiding in our cities and villages.”
“Pakistan’s president should immediately use his power to suspend and commute Shafqat Hussein’s execution,” Kine said. “Pakistan’s government does a disservice to the child victims of the Peshawar attack by rejoining the odious short-list of countries that permit the barbarous practice of executing child offenders.”