Activists from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan demonstrate against the death penalty in Islamabad on Oct. 10. (Photo by Aamir Qureshi/AFP)
Pakistan is close to achieving a notorious new milestone of becoming one of the world's top executioners, with almost 300 inmates already put to death this year and thousands more waiting.
According to figures from Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission, 295 people have been hanged in the country — a new record — since December last year.
Amnesty International, however, puts the toll of executed inmates at 299.
Abdul Basit, a paraplegic man who was convicted of murder, could have become the 300th, but his Nov. 25 execution was delayed at the eleventh hour after the Pakistani president intervened.
This was the third time that an execution warrant had been issued for Abdul Basit, who was first scheduled to be hanged on July 29.
Despite being unable to stand and being reliant on a wheelchair, jail authorities are adamant about carrying out his inhuman and unlawful hanging.
"The hanging of a wheelchair-bound prisoner simply cannot be conducted in a humane and dignified manner as required by Pakistani and international law. Proceeding with Abdul Basit’s execution in the circumstances will offend against all norms of civilized justice," the rights group’s chairwoman, Zohra Yusuf, said in a statement.
The outspoken group has taken a principled approach to defending the rights of Pakistan’s death row prisoners. If only the local church would do the same.
Pakistan lifts moratorium
Pakistan’s record on executions this year is all the more astounding given that prior to December 2014, the country had not carried out any executions in six years.
But Islamabad lifted its moratorium on the death penalty shortly after Taliban militants stormed a school in Peshawar, killing 150 people — including 130 schoolchildren.
The horrific attack shocked the nation and triggered countrywide protests and demands to rein in the Taliban’s campaign of terror and violence.
As media and public pressure grew, the Pakistani military and political leadership rushed to restore capital punishment and announced the establishment of controversial military courts to fast-track the trials of terror suspects.
Initially, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif opted to execute only terror convicts, but pressure from Islamist parties and clergy convinced authorities to order executions for all kinds of death row convicts — a move that drew condemnation from the United Nations, the European Union, Amnesty International and other groups.
Rights watchdogs say the government is ignoring its responsibilities to reform the legal system. They say that the circumstances that prompted the suspension of capital punishment in the first place have not changed after six years, and that the deeply flawed criminal justice system continues to pose the threat of wrongful convictions.
Rights groups also argue that there is no evidence to suggest any correlation between the death penalty and reducing crime rates.
When compared to 2014 statistics, Pakistan’s nearly 300 executions this year would put it near the top of an unfortunate list. This year, Saudi Arabia has executed at least 151 people, while Iran has put to death almost 700, according to Amnesty.
According to the Justice Project Pakistan, a Lahore-based nonprofit law firm that helps marginalized people in the legal system, more than 8,000 people are currently on death row. Pakistan’s government, on the other hand, says there are 6,000.
Asia Bibi, a Catholic mother of four, is among those who have been handed the death sentence after her disputed conviction for blasphemy. Bibi's final appeal is pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
Among those who have already been executed are Aftab Bahadur Masih, a Christian man who was arrested in 1992 in a case involving the murder of a woman and her two sons.
According to the Justice Project Pakistan, Bahadur was only 15 years old at the time of his arrest — too young to face the death penalty. The Catholic Church in Pakistan had made an unsuccessful appeal for clemency to Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain.
In August, Pakistan executed Shafqat Hussain, convicted of killing a child in 2004. His lawyers claimed he was 14 when found guilty and his confession was extracted by torture, but officials say there is no proof he was a minor when convicted.
Church response disappointing
In September this year, Pope Francis called for the global abolition of the death penalty in his address to a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress.
"The golden rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development," Francis said in his speech to Congress.
"This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty. I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred."
Despite Pope Francis' clear and unambiguous stance on capital punishment, the Catholic Church in Pakistan has failed to take a stand against the record numbers of executions in the country this year.
Apart from an appeal for clemency for Bahadur, neither the church nor the human rights arm of its bishops’ conference, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, has issued even a single statement on the death penalty.
In fact, two senior officials from the commission told ucanews.com that they personally supported the government's move to resume capital punishment, reasoning it would help solve the country’s long-standing terrorism woes. The two officials, however, asked not to be named.
Although some clergymen individually opposed the executions in media interviews, there has been a muted and disappointing official response from the church, to say the least.
It is high time that the Catholic Church in Pakistan took a principled stance against capital punishment. It would be in line with international laws, and indeed in line with the views of Pope Francis himself.
Zahid Hussain is a Pakistani journalist covering human rights and issues affecting minorities.