"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Pakistan's death row: Where even angels fear to tread

Gallows
Last week, the Supreme Court of Pakistan set a date for the final appeal hearing for Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 on accusations of alleged blasphemy. The 51-year-old Christian convict and mother of 5 will have her final appeal heard before the court during the 2nd week in October.

Bibi initially appealed against her death sentence to the Lahore High Court, which in October 2014, upheld the verdict. The Supreme Court agreed last July to hear Bibi's case and stayed her death sentence.

One of the most controversial blasphemy cases to-date, Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer was assassinated for standing with Bibi; Minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was gunned down by terrorists and Taseer's assassin Mumtaz Qadri was given death in February 2016.

It all began over Bibi sharing a bowl of water with a Muslim woman in June 2009 in the town of Sheikhupura in the Punjab province. As the women were picking berries, a Muslim woman became furious when Bibi drank from the same bowl that the Muslim women drank out of, which lead to a heated debate.

Becoming prey to decades-old bias and prejudice against religious minorities, Bibi paid the price for standing her ground and asking for equality. She was accused of blasphemy, which she has repeatedly said she never committed.

Bibi, who has been in the jail for 6 years now, has a deteriorating health and the Christian rights groups in Pakistan have been reporting how she needs special medical care as she has had lung infection and has trouble walking too. The reports from these groups suggest that she is suffering from "Death Row Syndrome" and is under mental trauma.

A lot has changed even outside Bibi's jail cell. Pakistan, which had a moratorium on death penalty, has executed over 400 people since resuming hangings in December 2014 after the Army Public School attacks, according to an international human rights organisation, Reprieve.

What started out to execute terrorists is now a penalty on non-terrorists too. Pakistan has become one of the world's most prolific executioners since lifting a moratorium on hangings, which had been in place for several years. According to publicly available data analysed by Reprieve, June saw 4 hangings, bringing the total since December 2014 to 404 - though the figure could be higher as not all executions in the country are reported. 86 of those hangings have taken place in 2016, which means that Pakistan likely holds its position in the world's top 5 executioners for the year so far behind China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, but ahead of the US.

Pakistan has seen a number of controversial death penalty cases recently. Abdul Basit, a paralysed prisoner who needs to use a wheelchair, continues to be held under sentence of death despite concerns that there is no way to execute him that would not carry a high risk of prolonged suffering. He recently told his lawyers that, during a previous attempt to hang him, the prison authorities had built a slope or ramp up to the gallows to take him to be hanged in his wheelchair.

Also facing potential imminent execution is Muhammad Anwar, despite his having been arrested as a child. His case is currently before the Supreme Court, as both Pakistani and international law prohibit the execution of people arrested for alleged offences that took place when they were under-18.

The Justice Project Pakistan in its report explains how the country has one of the largest death row populations in the world. This is partly because there are over 20 offences for which a person may receive death penalty, including non-lethal crimes such as blasphemy, kidnapping, and drug offences. There are around 7,595 prisoners on death row, hanging being only legal means of execution in the country.

A blasphemy convict has never been hanged by the state. Will the Supreme Court of Pakistan uphold Bibi's sentence? Or will President Mamnoon Hussain hear her clemency appeal and pardon her?

Source: newindianexpress.com, August 28, 2016

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