Beyond reasonable doubt

The finality of capital punishment is perhaps the strongest argument against it

Beyond reasonable doubt
The government of Pakistan decided to lift the moratorium on capital punishment as a response to the Army Public School attacks in December. Initially, executions were only to be carried out in terrorism related cases, but in March 2015, without any explanation from the government, the moratorium was lifted completely. Since December, Pakistan has already carried out 48 executions, inviting international criticism.

The post-Peshawar mood in the country was understandably raw; people wanted revenge and there were even calls for public executions of convicted terrorists. The government’s decision to appeal to these emotions was, of course, plain populism, since executing convicts does very little to address the real problems. In fact, a large number of people convicted under anti-terrorism laws actually have no links to terrorist organizations and the crimes they have committed bear little resemblance to what is commonly understood by terrorism.

A perfect example is that of Shafqat Hussain, an individual whose case has garnered substantial local and international media attention. Hussain was originally convicted of kidnapping and murder in 2004 and subsequently sentenced to death. The murder charges were later overturned to involuntary manslaughter in 2007. His case was tried in an Anti-Terrorism Court in Karachi where he was provided a court-appointed counsel, who, according to Justice Project Pakistan – a Pakistani organization that provides legal aid to the most vulnerable prisoners in the legal system – never raised the issue of Hussain’s age, which the organization claims was only 14 at the time. The constitution of Pakistan clearly prohibits the awarding of death penalty to minors, as do various international treaties that Pakistan has signed.

Not only is Shafqat Hussain’s case an example of how easily anti-terrorism laws can be abused against vulnerable citizens who cannot afford proper legal counsel, but it also highlights how weak the Pakistani justice system still is.

Ironically, Hussain was to be among the first convicts who were to be executed after the moratorium was lifted in terrorism related cases. As a result of media attention and pressure from the civil society, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar halted the hanging and promised an inquiry, proving that the government was still willing to correct its errors and show some compassion and respect for human rights. Strangely, Hussain was back on death row in March with no inquiry conducted, as the government decided to go ahead with extending the lifting of the moratorium to non-terrorism cases. The Pakistani civil society quickly took to social media and initiated a campaign which resulted in the government promising a 30-day stay and an inquiry for Hussain.
Can Shaftqat Hussain's confession carry weight if it was the result of brutal police torture?

Not everyone was pleased with this development, however. A prominent TV anchor discredited the efforts of Pakistan’s civil society and compared the influence of Western funded NGOs to that of the East India Company. He gloatingly asked if the state of Pakistan was now controlled by these organizations, as if the influence of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and Reprieve, the organizations that have been demanding the government to halt the execution, could even remotely be likened to the violence, humiliation and oppression of colonial rule. It is deeply concerning that people fighting for justice get branded as foreign agents, and simultaneously, when the government does the right thing in halting the execution until a proper investigation has been carried out, this is seen as a sign of weakness. And all this in a case like Shafqat Hussain’s. Realistically, what would Western nations stand to gain from halting this man’s execution in Pakistan?

There is currently an underlying atmosphere of defensiveness and hostility towards international human rights organizations, the UN and the EU in Pakistan, all of which have been calling for the reinstatement of the moratorium on death penalties in the country. It is, of course, unfortunate how much CIA’s fake vaccination campaign that was conducted in Abbottabad during the hunt for Osama bin Laden has damaged the image of international, and especially Western-funded, NGOs in Pakistan. Nevertheless, it should be kept in mind that this was an isolated incident and that NGOs themselves had nothing to do with it. Not all campaigns are a conspiracy of the West.

Perhaps it is understandable that some people in Pakistan are reacting in such a defensive way, because the Peshawar attacks seem to have left a permanent scar in the national psyche. Death penalty is seen as a way of doing at least something, when in reality everyone seems to be equally lost on what an effective strategy against terrorism could or should look like. Be that as it may, constitutional rights need to be respected and innocent people should not end up suffering only because the public is baying for blood. This is precisely why an investigation is needed. The call to “save Shafqat” and the debate surrounding the case is not simply about Shafqat Hussain’s age at the time of his conviction, as some have stated. The issue of custodial torture deserves an equal amount of attention. Can Hussain’s confession realistically carry any weight if it has been the result of brutal torture by the police? This is something that was also never brought up by the court-provided counsel – an issue that surely deserves to be investigated before something as irreversible as an execution is carried out.

If anything, the Pakistani civil society deserves praise – not vilification. The campaign was initiated by Pakistanis and it also succeeded because of Pakistanis. In reality, international organizations and media played a fairly small role in this. There is nothing anti-national in asking the government to conduct a proper investigation when there is reasonable doubt that the man sentenced to death may, in fact, have been tortured and been a juvenile at the time of his conviction. If this turns out not to be the case, then at least we know for sure.

Many people in Pakistan base their arguments for death penalty on the idea of retribution in Islamic law. What they fail to consider, however, is the principle that “to free someone criminal mistakenly is better than to punish someone innocent mistakenly”. Why, then, are these people so eager to hasten the execution of a man who might not be guilty? Senior journalists have been circulating photos on social media that allegedly prove that Hussain was not a minor at the time of his conviction. It is incomprehensible that such people do not realize the damage they are doing to the legal process by attempting to affect the public sentiment while no investigation has been concluded. Photos do not equal medical evidence, and it is not for the masses to judge this case but for a court of law. The NGOs and activists that these people are now accusing of “defaming Pakistan” and of being “Western stooges” are not asking for Hussain to be cleared of all charges – they are simply asking for an impartial investigation to determine his age and whether he actually committed the crimes he confessed to after having possibly been subjected to torture.

Those criticizing the #SaveShafqat campaign in Pakistan should not forget the outrageous secret hanging of Afzal Guru carried out by the Indian government in 2013. Afzal Guru from Indian-administered Kashmir was convicted of involvement in the 2001 attacks on the Indian parliament. Like Shafqat Hussain, Afzal Guru was provided a court-appointed lawyer who didn’t even bother to visit him in jail. His case was full of inconsistencies, the evidence against him weak and his confession most probably the result of torture. The media and ruling parties, especially the Hindu nationalist BJP, were shamelessly whipping up a lynching mentality while human rights organizations and activists who questioned the neutrality of his trial were accused of being “anti-national”. The government of India ignored the voices of reason and went ahead and executed him in secret, not even allowing his wife an opportunity to appeal for the last time. The people of Pakistan along with human rights groups in India and abroad were outraged – and rightly so.

The finality of capital punishment is perhaps the strongest argument against it. The decision to take away a person’s right to life is no small thing, nor is it something that can be solely based on calls for vengeance. Whether one agrees with this form of punishment or not, there should at least be no doubt about the guilt of the convict. At the moment, this is clearly not the case when it comes to Shafqat Hussain, and the government has done the right thing in ordering a stay. It is the collective responsibility of human rights defenders all over the world to keep raising their voices against injustices and to demand fair trials. Pakistan has seen enough innocent blood being spilt for it to afford to ignore the calls for a thorough investigation.