Pakistan indecisive on death punishments after moratorium ends

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Pakistan is witnessing a renewed tug of war between supporters and opponents of the death penalty, as the newly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has decided not to extend the five-year moratorium on executions, which expired on June 30.

The moratorium was imposed by President Asif Ali Zardari in 2008 and expired on June 30.

Government’s decision prompted Amnesty International (AI) to jump into the fray, urging Islamabad to suspend the death penalty, a move that could benefit about 8,000 condemned prisoners with new lease of life.

However, Islamabad looks unmoved by the human right watchdog appeal, as senior government officials say they were determined to execute hardened criminals and killers to control the worst lawlessness and bloodshed facing the country for over a decade, where dozens of people are being killed almost every day.

Zardari’s moratorium has been the center of controversy. It was criticized as encouraging the terrorists while creating problems for law enforcement agencies and courts in a country where the crime rate has risen to record levels during the last decade.

A spokesman for the president said capital punishment would not take place while Zardari is in office. His term ends on Sept. 8.

Zardari left the country last week for an unscheduled visit to Dubai amid reports he plans to be abroad during the last days of his term in office. Zardari, who unexpectedly succeeded military dictator General [retired] Pervez Musharraf and continued all his pro-U.S. policies, faces security threats, with his arch-rival Nawaz Sharif bent on reopening corruption cases against him.

A spokesman for the president said capital punishments would not be executed as long as Zardari was in the office. With death punishment moratorium, President Zardari is believed to have tried winning the support of Western capitals.

According to interior ministry, there were approximately 8,000 death row prisoners in the country, and mercy appeals of 450 out of them were pending before the ministry, awaiting a final decision from the President who is authorized by the constitution to pardon any death row convict.

Zardari refrained from either pardoning those convicts or rejecting their appeals, like his late predecessor General Ziaul Haq rejected in 1979 the mercy appeal of Zardari’s father-in-law, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who was hanged for ordering the assassination of a political opponent.

The new government hopes that after the early announcement of presidential elections’ schedule, the interim president taking charge may decide to carry out the death punishments. But legal experts say any decision by interim president could be suspended if convicts’ lawyers challenged it in courts.

Constitution lawyer Rashed Hanif said if interim president allows death punishments, courts might suspend it on the ground that the interim president was not authorized to take decisions with long term effects.

President of Sindh High Court Bar Association Mustafa Lakhani said death sentences awarded to scores of criminals were not being executed, which, according to him, encourage other criminals to commit crimes.

He indicated that law and order in Karachi has deteriorated public safety has declined. “Since 2007, over 40 lawyers have been assassinated in Karachi,” he said, adding that law enforcers have failed to restore peace in the city.

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