TOPICS : Thousands escape noose in Pakistan

Some 7,000 death row inmates, a quarter of the estimated condemned prisoners worldwide, are expected to be spared and eventually freed following a call by Pakistan’s prime minister to honour the memory of the assassinated political leader Benazir Bhutto. On July 3, the cabinet approved a proposal of Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani to commute the sentences of prisoners currently on death row to life imprisonment, announced to parliament on the occasion of Bhutto’s 55th birth anniversary on June 21. Bhutto was assassinated during an election rally last December. Her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) swept to power on Feb. 18.

The commutation is expected to benefit the majority of Pakistan’s condemned prisoners, except those charged with terrorism or plotting to assassinate the president, IA Rehman, director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), said. The final approval of the commutation — the largest in modern times — rests with President Pervez Musharraf. “There are indications the president will approve the proposal,” added Rehman, quoting a confidential source.

Following the prime minister’s announcement, both HRCP and Amnesty International (AI) pressed Pakistan to announce an execution moratorium. In the first five months of this year, there was an execution on the average once a week. Last year, Pakistan executed at least 135 inmates, the fourth largest number among the 25 countries whose executions were recorded by AI.“At the very least, this government could ensure that there are no executions as long as it is in office by signing the UN (General Assembly) moratorium on executions,” Ali Dayan Hasan, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Pakistan, suggested.

Four days before the prime minister’s call for death sentences to be commuted, HRW sent an open letter to the prime minister, calling for Pakistan to abolish the death penalty and in the meantime to impose an execution moratorium. The New York-based organisation also called for a reduction in the number of death penalty offences. There are currently 26 crimes carrying the death penalty, ranging from murder to consensual sex outside marriage.“Of course there are many problems to be resolved until thiscan happen,” Rehman conceded. “In a conservative country, brutalised by successive military regimes, there is bound to be opposition to the move.” In 1970, the government led by her father, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, raised the minimum life imprisonment term from 14 to 25 years with the idea of abolishing capital punishment.

Bhutto was overthrown by Gen. Zia ul-Haq in a military coup in 1977. Zia retained the death penalty and two years later signed Bhutto’s “black warrant”. Bhutto’s execution is widely termed as a “judicial murder”. News of the PM’s call for the death row inmates to be spared has raised hopes in India that Sarabjit Singh, an Indian sentenced to death for terrorism in Pakistan, will be returned to his country. — IPS