By Tushar Ranjan Mohanty*
On July 29, 2015, eight death row prisoners were executed in Pakistan’s Punjab Province. Three prisoners, identified as Muhammad Safdar, Aftab and his father, were hanged at Attock District Jail. Aftab and his father Usman had killed a man in 1998 over a monetary dispute. Muhammad Safdar had murdered two people over a ‘petty issue’ in 2003. Another convicted prisoner, Muhammad Tufail was hanged till death in Kasur District Jail. Tufail was hanged for killing a man and his son in 2001. Separately, another convict, Mohammad Nawaz was hanged till death in Sargodha District Jail for killing his relative over a land dispute in 2002. In Multan District Jail, death row prisoner Nayyar Abbas was hanged for killing a man in 1996. Another prisoner, Gulfam alias Gullu, was hanged till death in Gujrat District Jail for killing a man in 2001. Ahmed Din was hanged at the Jhang District Jail for killing Shireen Khan in a land dispute in April 2001.
Earlier, on July 27, 2015, two death row prisoners, Farooq Babar and Karim Nawaz, were hanged till death in Multan Central Jail. Babar had been found guilty of killing a man in 1998 after the deceased had failed to return an amount of borrowed money, while Nawaz, was convicted of murdering a man on 1999 over an old feud.
Prior to that, eight more death row prisoners were hanged in different prisons of Punjab on June 16, 2015, in spite of Federal Government’s one month moratorium on executions during Ramazan (Islamic month of fasting). A notification was issued on June 12, 2015, by the Federal Ministry of Interior and Provincial Governments had also been requested to comply with the order.
According to partial data compiled by The Express Tribune, at least 195 convicts were hanged till death across Pakistan since December 17, 2014.
Ironically, the Pakistan Government had lifted a seven-year moratorium on executions on December 17, 2014, in response to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attack on Army Public School (APS) in Peshawar, the provincial capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), on December 16, 2014, in which 148 persons, including 135 children were killed. The resumption of executions was justified as a necessary measure to deal with terrorism. While lifting the moratorium, the Federal Minister of Defence Khwaja Asif stated, on December 19, 2014, that the Government had consciously decided to lift the moratorium on capital punishment and that carrying out of death penalty against terrorists would begin soon. He asserted, further, “There will be no discrimination in carrying out convictions of terrorists who have been sentenced to death and whose appeals have been rejected,” and that the process of establishing military courts for the purpose of trying terror suspects was already underway.
Of the 195 persons hanged since December 17, 2014, just 23 were involved in acts of terrorism. Moreover, even between December 17 and March 9, 2015, when executions were limited to terrorism offences only, of the 24 persons hanged, only eight were involved in acts of terror. Significantly, it was on March 10, 2015, that the Government decided to implement the death penalty in all cases.
In the interim, and despite objections from the Judiciary, opposition political parties and civil society, the Government went ahead with the establishment of military courts. The Army set up nine courts — three each in KP and Punjab, two in Sindh and one in Balochistan. According to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s special assistant for law, Ashtar Ausaf Ali, about 100 cases have gone to military courts and 27 judgments have been pronounced. The case files are ‘secret’ and it is not known how many of these judgments have awarded the death sentence, and to how many people. However, on April 2, 2015, military courts across the country on April 2, 2015, announced the award of the death sentences to six persons on terror charges. On April 15, 2015, the Supreme Court stayed the execution of these six terrorists, and the stay currently continues.
According to Ministries of Interior and Law and Justice and Human Rights officials, as on December 17, 2014, there were around 8,261 prisoners on death row in more than five dozen jails of the country. Of these, more than 6,770 were in various jails of Punjab. An unnamed senior official of Ministry of Interior disclosed that though it was difficult to put a precise number on how many prisoners were convicted for terrorism related offenses, estimates put roughly 30 per cent in this category.
During the hearing on the 21st Constitutional Amendment, which is intended to vest jurisdictional power in the Army for the establishment and operation of the military courts, Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa of the Supreme Court questioned, on June 23, 2015, whether the Army should be given a free hand to do everything in the name of ‘defence of Pakistan’. During the hearing he demanded, “Tell the court how many challans have been submitted in the anti-terrorism courts (ATCs) and the situation of trial and why the prosecution failed to proceed in terrorist cases.” Replying to the query, Attorney General for Pakistan (AGP) Salman Aslam Butt informed the court that, in 2014, 85 per cent of cases were outstanding in regular anti-terrorism courts (ATCs), but didn’t give the reasons as to why so many cases were pending. Parliament passed the 21st Constitutional Amendment and the Army Act to pave the way for the establishment of military courts for a period of two years.
Sarah Belal, head of Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a human rights organisation that launched the report “Terror on Death Row” on December 18, 2015, lamented, “Lifting the moratorium is a knee-jerk reaction. Our research shows that the government is clueless on who is an actual terrorist on death row and who isn’t. Keeping that in mind, we’re going to see some gross violations of rights.” According to the report, 80 per cent of those on death row have not committed acts of terror, but were wrongly convicted. “They have the wrong people and terrorists roam free”, Belal added.
The problem is compounded further by the fact that several terrorist organizations in Pakistan continue to enjoy state support, creating systemic biases against a non-discriminatory policy of executing terrorists on death row. In a recent assertion, the Federal Minister for Interior Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan defended the terrorist Jamat-ud-Da’wah (JuD) on the floor of the Senate (Upper House of Parliament), arguing that it was involved in ‘charitable works’. On July 7, 2015, he argued, “Presently, JuD is engaged in charity and social work, operating hospitals, clinics, schools, ambulance service and religious institutions.” He went on to add that that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had listed JuD as a resurrection of LeT, but no ‘supporting evidence’ was shared with Pakistan to establish such a connection. The JuD, a front of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), is led by Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the mastermind of the November 26, 2008 (26/11) Mumbai (India) terror attacks, and the US has declared a reward of USD 10 million against him.
Though the Government and the all powerful military in Pakistan remain in denial, the Supreme Court, on July 2, 2015, asked the Attorney General of Pakistan (AGP) why no action was being taken against terrorist organisations. Justice Jawwad S. Khawaja remarked,
You have an action plan [National Action Plan (NAP)], then why it is not being implemented? Why terrorist organisations are overlooked by them? Action should be taken against them as well. Governments should do their job. The Court will issue no directive. No one can heave a sigh of relief. Every day a terror incident is published in newspapers. This is the level of seriousness of governments that terror incidents are taking place every day. Tell us, what the government has done within six months and six days (sic).
A ‘20-point Plan’ on counter-terrorism was announced by Prime Minister Sharif in a televised address to the nation in the night of December 24, 2014. NAP was another element incorporated in the Constitution by the 21st Constitutional Amendment on January 7, 2015.
Expectedly, a handout has been issued by the Federal Ministry of Interior on July 4, 2015, to counter the Supreme Court. According to the handout, some 54,376 combing operations have been carried out under NAP, which came into effect on January 7, 2015, resulting in 60,420 arrests. Under NAP 3,019 intelligence-based operations were carried out while 1,388 pieces of intelligence were shared. Some 97.9 million mobile SIM cards have been verified using bio-metric technology, while 5.1 million SIM cards have been blocked. Further, Federal Minister of Interior Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, on July 4, 2015, argued that it was wrong to say that ‘not a single bit of work’ has been done under NAP, and that, had this been so, international think-tanks would not have included Pakistan in the list of countries where acts of terrorism declined over the past year. Nisar added that NAP is not the sole responsibility of a particular department, institution or Ministry, but that it is a “national agenda” for the success of which numerous Ministries of the Federal Government, intelligence agencies, armed forces and provincial Governments are striving.
Pakistan has long harnessed the issue of terrorism to actions and policies entirely unrelated to counter-terrorist objectives. The current frenzy of executions is a case in point, even as the collusion of the state establishment with externally directed terrorist groupings in particular, and some domestic groups as well, remains undiminished. Despite the great misfortunes this enduring strategy of complicity and support to terrorism has brought upon the people of Pakistan, the state, its agencies, and the elites that control these, still appear to believe that there are profiting from these processes.
* Tushar Ranjan Mohanty
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management