Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Pakistan and the Death Penalty

Since lifting its moratorium on the death penalty in 2014, Pakistan has become one of the world’s leading executioners.

In its “Death Sentences and Executions Report 2015,” Amnesty International ranked Pakistan as the third most prolific executioner in the world, right after China and Iran. Taken together, Pakistan, Iran, and Saudi Arabia accounted for almost 90 percent of all recorded global executions (excluding China’s figures, as the number of executions is considered a state secret by Beijing). While Amnesty’s report only covered the year 2015, since 2014 Pakistan has hanged at least 389 death row inmates.

After a brutal terrorist attack on schoolchildren in Peshawar, Pakistan lifted a six-year de facto moratorium on use of the death penalty — first for terror-related cases and then, in March 2015, in all capital cases. In making its decision, government seemed quite convinced that capital punishment was the only effective way to deal with the scourge of terrorism. When the moratorium was lifted, it was viewed in the broader context of Pakistan’s fight against terrorists and militancy.

But after following this policy for almost a year and a half now, a quick glance at the data of executions carried out in Pakistan calls this narrative into question. As per the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), 389 death row convicts have been hanged through mid-April 2016. Out of these, 49 were tried by the Anti-Terrorism Courts (ATCs) and 12 by the military courts. Based on the HRCP data, only around 10 percent of those executed in Pakistan were associated with terrorism, while 73 percent are ordinary murderers. The others were convicted of murder after rape, murder after robbery, or murder after kidnapping. The Pakistani government’s assertion that the moratorium on death penalty was lifted to tackle terrorism loses ground here.

Furthermore, Pakistan employs a broad definition of “terrorism.” Subsection (b) of Section 6(1) of the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997, as amended in 2013, spells out terrorism as “the use or threat of action” intended “to coerce and intimidate or overawe the Government or the public” or “create a sense of fear or insecurity in society.” Any murder can be deemed to “intimidate” the public and “create a sense of fear” in the neighborhood. No wonder more than one in 10 of all death row prisoners in Pakistan is tried as a “terrorist.”

It’s also a very unfortunate reality that juveniles and people with disabilities were also among those executed in Pakistan. Several such controversies have come to the fore during the trials of non-terrorism related case in ATCs, which resulted in condemning juveniles to death. Shafqat Hussain, for example, was allegedly sentenced to death when he was 14 years old; he was hanged in August 2015. Likewise, Aftab Bahadur was hanged in June 2015 despite pleas from international human rights groups that he was a juvenile when convicted of murder. Amnesty International reports that five men who were juveniles at the time of their crimes were among those executed by Pakistan in 2015.

Meanwhile, a paraplegic death row prisoner received a last-minute stay of execution in November 2015 to the relief of many human rights activists in the country. However, the news that the officials were simply uncertain of how to hang a man incapable of standing up unsupported was both sickening and painful.

There are also questions about the fairness of the judicial process. There have been cases where the court-appointed lawyer does not ever meet the suspect outside of court, present evidence in his defense, or properly challenge witness statements. Poorer families cannot hire afford to private lawyers and very often lose the battle of life against poverty.

Despite these issues, there seems to be strong public support for the death penalty. According to a Gilani Research Foundation Survey carried out by Gallup Pakistan in February 2016, 92 percent of Pakistanis said they support “the rule of hanging terrorists.” Out of those who were in favor, 64 percent said that they support it “a lot” while 28 percent said they support it “to some extent.” However, the specific question that this survey asked was whether people were for or against the hanging of terrorists. As we’ve seen, the vast majority of executions have little to do with terrorism, at least as the public would conceive of it.

There’s more at stake here than morality. Pakistan was granted Generalized System of Preferences-Plus (GSP+) status by the EU in 2013, while its moratorium on executions was still in place. That status, which provides duty-free access to the EU market, has provided huge economic benefits – according to The News, “Pakistan’s exports to EU rose by 21 percent in the first year of the scheme alone.” Yet EU officials have warned that human rights issues – including use of the death penalty – could see Pakistan’s GSP+ status suspended. Pakistan survived the first EU compliance report, but there will be a reassessment in 2017. If the Pakistani government wants to avail itself of GSP+ benefits beyond 2017, it must take seriously the implementation of UN conventions on human rights.

With Pakistan’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR) due in 2017 too, it would be a wise decision to start putting Pakistan’s house in order now. The death penalty is sure to feature as a main issue in the review process, as are the hangings of alleged juvenile convicts. Pakistan has ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child and has, hence, committed not to impose the death penalty on anyone who was a juvenile at the time of the crime.

It is vitally important that Pakistan start respecting these commitments and rethinking its policies now rather than later making apologetic defenses of its position. Pakistan has indeed gone too far in its policy of executions, and it is time it starts doing more (or perhaps less) on the issue.

Source: The Diplomat, April 21, 2016. Madiha Batool is a professional working as an Adviser on Political and Economic Affairs in a diplomatic mission in Pakistan.

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