Violating international law

On December 14, it will be a whole year since Pakistan lifted its four year moratorium on the death penalty. In a short period of 11 months, the Government of Pakistan has executed more than 311 of its population on death row and gained international infamy as the third amongst the top executioners in the world. With a population of over 8000 death row prisoners at risk, it is likely that the rate of executions will continue unabated. The Government has repeatedly defended its vengeful execution spree as necessary for curtailing the rising threat of terrorism within its national borders. However, it repeatedly fails to mention that only 16 of the 300 prisoners executed have had links to known terrorist organisations.

Who are the remaining 284 who have been marched to the gallows – their deaths lauded as symbols of our increasing national security? In its report to the United Nation Human Rights Committee submitted in October 2015, Pakistan stated that in compliance with international standards death penalty under its domestic laws is prescribed as a punishment for the “most serious crimes”. However, Pakistani laws mandate capital punishment for over 28 crimes, including treason, blasphemy and unlawful assembly. The Anti-Terrorism Act, 1997 (ATA) allows the courts to award the death penalty for non-terrorism related offences that “create a sense of fear or insecurity in society” including kidnaping for ransom and hijacking. The police often resort to booking accused persons under the ATA as its lower standards of evidence allow it to admit coerced evidence and testimonials as evidence. It is no secret, that torture is the primary means by which police extract “evidence” from accused persons.

As the government senselessly executes vulnerable prisoners left right and centre, an execution warrant has been issued scheduling the execution of Abdul Basit on Wednesday. Abdul Basit’s case has gained considerable international and local media and censure. After contracting Tuberculosis while being confined in the unhygienic “punishment wing” in Faisalabad Central Jail , Abdul Basit lost all movement in his lower limbs. According to a 2015 report of a Medical Board convened at the order of the Lahore High Court Basit is “permanently disabled….. He is likely to remain bed-bound for the rest of his life.” For almost 6 years, he has lead an undignified life in solitary confinement lying on the floor of his small cell, dependent on jail staff for his basic needs.

Abdul Basit’s execution, if undertaken, would amount to cruel, in human and degrading treatment under the Pakistan Prison Rules, the Constitution and Pakistan’s international legal obligations. Under the current legal procedures governing executions, a prisoner is required to mount the scaffolding of the gallows and stand on the trap door as the noose is placed around his neck – Basit unable to get out of his wheel chair is unable to do this. It is likely that if (and when) Abdul Basit is hung to death he will run a high risk of decapitation or strangulation resulting in a long and painful death. Abdul Basit’s previous execution scheduled for 22 September 2015 was stayed at the final hour as the prison authorities and the overseeing judicial authority were simply at a loss as to how go ahead with the execution in a humane manner. The government is gearing up to give it one more shot on Wednesday.

Abdul Basit’s execution will also serve as a severe blow to its reputation in the international diplomatic community. As a result of its being a beneficiary of the European Union’s Generalised System of Preferences (GSP) plus status since January 2014, 20 percent of Pakistani exports enter EU market at zero tariff and 70 percent at preferential rates. This has resulted in Pakistan’s exports to the EU increasing by almost 20 percent in the first year. However, the continuation of the GSP plus status is dependent on Pakistan’s compliance with several international human rights treaties including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention Against Torture, and Convention on the Rights of the Child. The EU has on several occasions noted that Pakistan’s exercise of the death penalty is in violation of its human rights obligations under the aforementioned Conventions. On July 20, 2015, the European Council urged Pakistan to reinstate the moratorium on the death penalty and commute life sentences of all prisoners on its death row. Pakistan’s GSP+ status is up for review in January 2016. Ambassador to the EU delegation has on several occasion expressed concerns over Pakistan’s failure to comply with its human rights obligations under the GSP+ scheme and has recently noted that Pakistan might be at risk of forgoing its beneficial status. This would make Pakistan the only country other than Sri Lanka to be censured in such a way.

Repeated visits by the Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir and the recently appointed Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Human Rights Ashtar Ausaf to the EU clearly demonstrate that the government is aware of the potential threat to its economic prosperity by its dismal human rights record. However, it has still failed to review this human rights violation that is the fundamental basis of its inability to satisfy its obligations under international law.

There is no better time for Pakistan to re-evaluate its flawed counter-terrorism strategy and human rights record. The whole world is watching!

The writer is a lawyer currently working with the Justice Project Pakistan

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