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Nawaz Sharif Tries to Do the Right Thing During Ramadan: Pause Hangings

This week, Pakistan executed at least 15 people, most of whom had spent years on death row before meeting their end in the Pakistani justice system. For these unlucky 15 and their families, this week’s news must have felt like a cruel joke, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the government to suspend executions in ...

BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 11:  Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at the Chancellery to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 11, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Sharif is on a two-day official visit to Germany.  (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - NOVEMBER 11: Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at the Chancellery to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 11, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Sharif is on a two-day official visit to Germany. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

This week, Pakistan executed at least 15 people, most of whom had spent years on death row before meeting their end in the Pakistani justice system. For these unlucky 15 and their families, this week’s news must have felt like a cruel joke, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif ordered the government to suspend executions in honor of Ramadan.

Citing “the sanctity of the holy month” of Ramadan, Sharif issued an order Sunday through his Interior Ministry, compelling provincial governments to suspend the death penalty. For most of Pakistan, Ramadan begins Friday, depending on when you can see the new moon, and the ban on executions would continue for the holiday’s 29 or 30 days.

This would certainly seem to be an act of uncommon mercy. This is a country that, after all, has hanged more than 170 people since December, and currently has over 8,000 people on death row, according to Amnesty International. For months now, human rights organizations have decried the Sharif government’s appetite for the death penalty, which it has used largely in response to increasing acts of violence by the Taliban and its affiliated groups.

But it wasn’t always this bad. When the Pakistan People’s Party’s Asif Ali Zardari became president in 2008, he issued an unofficial moratorium on executions, adhering to the party’s longstanding rejection of the policy — unofficial because the executive branch in Pakistan doesn’t technically enjoy any exclusive authority over whether local jurisdictions pursue capital punishment. But it can express its preference, which local jurisdictions can choose whether to follow. Overall, the executive’s authority over such matters is murky.

Indeed, despite Zardari’s attempt to block executions, Pakistan would go on to sentence 276 people to death in 2009 and another 365 in 2010, while thousands continued to languish on death row.

When the Sharif government took power in the summer of 2013, it came under heavy pressure by the European Union to extend Zardari’s ban on capital punishment. Brussels reportedly even dangled promises to drop trade duties in exchange for a moratorium. Then on Dec. 16, Tehrik-i-Taliban militants attacked a school in Peshawar, killing 148 people, mostly children. In response and under pressure from the military, Sharif revoked the moratorium for non-military personnel in “terrorism” cases, leaving the definition of terrorism more or less undefined — great news to a military seeking the most exacting punishment possible for terrorism suspects. In March, the Sharif government went ahead and lifted the moratorium all together, perhaps realizing that parsing the difference between terrorists and non-terrorists would be difficult and potentially unconstitutional. The Pakistani death machine was up and running once more.

According to the British human rights organization Reprieve, Pakistani government officials are determined to eventually clear the backlog of more than 8,000 inmates on death row — the largest in the world. Moreover, Pakistani police have long been accused of using torture to obtain forced confessions, particularly of juvenile suspects such as Shafqat Hussain, who was 14 or 15 years old in 2004 when he was allegedly tortured into confessing to kidnapping and killing a seven-year old boy. The torture allegedly included electrical shocks to his genitals and burning him with cigarette butts. Authorities, for their part, say Hussain was 23 at the time of his incarceration.

On June 1, an anti-terrorism court ordered his execution on June 9. Shortly before he was set to die, the court granted him a reprieve, marking the fourth time his execution has been delayed. But the Supreme Court has so far refused to hear his appeal.

Given the Pakistani government’s embrace of capital punishment, this brief stretch of benevolence will mean little for the legal standing of those on death row in Pakistan. If anything, it buys those next in line — typically, those who’ve been on death row the longest — a little extra time to lodge a last-minute appeal.

Pakistan is, of course, not the only country in the world — Muslim-majority or not — to have embraced capital punishment. But prominent Muslim scholars such as Tariq Ramadan have called for international moratorium on the death penalty in Islamic countries.

But judging by the run-up to Islamabad’s pause on executions during Ramadan, capital punishment is likely to remain a feature of the Pakistani justice system. On Wednesday, just before the holiday’s start, Pakistani executioners managed to squeeze in seven last hangings.

Photo credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images News

Siddhartha Mahanta is an associate editor at Foreign Policy. A Texas native and graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he has also worked for Mother Jones, National Journal, and the PBS Newshour.  @sidhubaba

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