Shooting the sheriff


A tirade against death penalty supporters



In a recent entry to the Tribune Blog, Sohail Anwer heralded the return of the death penalty in Pakistan.

Capital punishment was made subject to a presidential moratorium in 2008, when Asif Ali Zardari yanked the reigns on 8,000 death-row inmates, suspending their march to the gallows and managing a manoeuvre truly worthy of his reputation. In order to appease international observers, he managed to make the government appear more humane than the citizens of this country, despite turning a blind eye to a genocide in his own country.

However, with the ascension of PML-N into office, the death penalty has now been reinstated. Presumably, this is a deliberate show of constitutional might for the purposes of countering terrorism. However, if our best plan is to stop suicide bombers from blowing themselves up by threatening to hang them instead, then we need to re-examine our claims to fully operational right temporal lobes.

In line with the state’s desperate claims to power, and in cohesion with the public’s demand for bloody justice, Mr Anwer’s arguments display a remarkable disregard for the political context in Pakistan. He writes as if the Tribune is not a newspaper but an O-Level debating tournament.

According to him, the long delays in adjudication (and execution) are causing litigants to take matters in their own hands, hence weakening the authority of the courts and proliferating terrorism.

First of all, of course, it makes sense to mete out irreversible death sentences as quickly as possible; when it comes to the potential death of the vaguely accused, caution is mere vanity.

Moreover, it is also fantastically convenient to say that if anyone’s going to kill anybody, let it be the government killing the citizen. After all, litigants tend to act on sentiment, leaving a mess in the wake of their passions. This makes a mockery out of the need to kill, because one must never appear to enjoy it. Murder has such a noble air around it when one has to kill without the desire to do so. So, why not let the government do it, and diffuse the burden of responsibility across the population?

More importantly, it must be pointed out that the definition of ‘heinous’ crimes for which Mr Anwer wants his accused dead, is a depressingly volatile issue in Pakistan. Take, for example, the case of Manzoor Masih, a victim of Pakistan’s capricious Blasphemy Laws, who was shot during a trial in which the evidence against him could not be reproduced because that would have been blasphemy itself.

This was almost 15 years ago, before Mr Zardari’s intervention. So, for those who are in agreement with Mr Anwer, are they insinuating that had the courts quickly punished Manzoor Masih for his unprovable yet ‘heinous’ crime, our judicial system would have been more reliable today? Or do they wish to propagate constitutional reform first by opposing blasphemy laws and facing the wrath of God’s henchman? In other words, are they willing to risk their own death in order to protect their right to kill?

Mr Anwer believes that killing someone can restore a Pakistani’s faith in the judicial system. He is also under the assumption that life sentences are ‘light’ sentences and prefers instead the purging of ‘criminal scum’; that a quick splashing of capital punishment achieves closure for the aggrieved and deters crime at large.

Our phenomenal lack of faith in the Pakistani judicial system is not due to the fact that our criminals are still alive, but because our law enforcement agencies have a habit of accepting bribes, torturing the vulnerable (ie, the poor and the minorities), offering shamefully inadequate representation, and seldom mitigating a fair trial.

According to Philippa Greer, a human rights activist, the Human Rights Commission has concluded some harrowing truths about our judicial system: “Both political and judicial figures within Pakistan have conceded that as many as 65% of those on death row may be innocent, having been wrongfully convicted.”

And then we have the audacity to tell the largest death-row population in the world that they are a mere abstraction, a symbolic sacrifice, an opportunity to deter others from committing the crimes we have so wrongfully convicted the innocent for?

The gallows in Adiala Jail where many will experience the fragility of both, the judicial system as well as their necks, has the following words inscribed on it: “We hate the crime, not the human being.” As if the crimes people commit can be buried along with them.

The heinous crimes listed by Mr Anwer, such as first-degree murder and gang-rape, are indeed heinous, but they are seldom deterred by the threat of capital punishment. This is for three simple reasons: They are either crimes of delusion – serial killing cases, such as those in which the criminal is mentally incapable of processing the gravity of their crime, or crimes of passion – the products of blinding rage or jealousies; cases in which the capacity for rationality is strongly diminished by the urgency of a violent feeling.

Crimes of this nature cannot be deterred through capital punishment because they are not planned; they are temporary voids in human empathy, linked to factors such as an impoverished emotional upbringing or ‘breaking-point’ moments, usually suffered by those under immense pressure.

Even if we take crimes that are carefully planned by rational human beings who understand the consequences of their actions, they are not deterred by capital punishment, precisely because they consider themselves untouchable. These are a special class of criminals who consider themselves above the law.

These are gangsters, extortionists, contract killers, protected by powerful people on whom the law does not apply. With a shallow judicial system and friends in high places, who wouldn’t be tempted to kill somebody around here?

The assumption that life sentences are ‘light’ sentences is constantly challenged by the frequent pleas of death row inmates who wish to be executed quickly, rather than being made to suffer a lifetime in prison.

Many criminals look upon the death penalty as an opportunity for redemption. Terrorists in Pakistan claim to look forward to the honour of martyrdom, preferring to be killed by the enemy instead of being humiliated with uselessness. Shall we give them what they want then?

There is also a strategic Catch-22 at play here. Capital cases ought to take their time because they are irreversible and human life is at stake. That is why they tend to linger on the shoulders of delays and appeals. So, we can either put the needs of the accused in front of us and pace the proceedings with caution, hence prolonging the litigants’ grief as the trial unfolds one horrible detail after another. Or conversely, we can put the needs of the litigants first and offer speedy executions, whilst haemorrhaging any feeble provision for justice we might have on offer.

However, the presumably unquestionable aspect of this debate also requires closer interrogation.

What closure are we talking about when we mention friends and families of the victims? Who could ever stop grieving the tragic death of a loved one, or the gang-rape of an under-age daughter? What dignity are we attaching to the sorrows of our compatriots when we say to them that “we have killed the accused, so you won’t have to mourn the victim”? What does it do to the psychological grace of a litigant to have to subordinate the feelings of another family who will also lose a loved one, if not a victim of our definition?

Crime and punishment are bound by politically mitigating factors that transcend the individual and put entire nations on trial. If the state represents us all, then the state-sanctioned killing of any human being in judicial custody makes murderers out of us all, and links us back to the crime scene.


  1. Very well written and argued.

    However, if you or your most loved one are – I sincerely hope never – a victim, maybe then you would understand that killing another for commiting a crime is also a natural reactive emotion and when the state kills the accused, it provides solace.

    And if you have been through something and yet hold this belief, than you are a better person but sadly, we are not that great. Maybe a few generations later we get so mature.

    So if 65% (which is an insanely high number), or even if it’s 5%, we need to improve the police, investigative system and judiciary.

    Not having capital punishments is not going to solve crimes either.

  2. Of course Kabir. abolishing the death penalty will not hinder crime, but it might help save those who have been wrongfully committed.

    I have been fairly lucky to not go through such an ordeal as you mention, but i can understand the impulse for revenge. I can also see that it might provide solace to some. However, we must not forget about those friends and families of victims who do not agree with the death penalty, do not wish to hang convicts, do not find any consolation in revenge. this is more common than what one would estimate. and the death penalty deprives them of an alternative form of justice, often forcing them to opt for a pardon. we can sympathise with the individual, but that's not enough to impose their will on societies.

    Thanks for the feedback.

  3. 65% innocent – I’d like to look at some further evidence as opposed to some supposed figures by alien human rights agencies. Also let’s not forget death sentences are firmly in place in America supposedly the worlds largest populated democracy – far be it for me to say lets follow America but they do have this one right. Certain crimes can only be dealt with in such manners. Im sure I have no need to quote the qur’an here – or do any of us think we know better than our creator or his prophet pbuh. Just because we have a masters degree or a phd does not mean we are able to dispute universal laws created designed and Implemented for us – by The Lord of hosts. Almighty Allah. We should spend more time practising our faith rather than debating it. This is where our imam has become weaker and weaker.

  4. Perhaps the first wise decision made by current Government. Speedy justice along with death sentence will resolve the whole issue.

  5. though Islam is clear about the death penalty, we must never let bad laws be implemented in the name of Islam. the life of an innocent has more value than the death of a murderer. look at what is happening in Egypt: 570 members of the Muslim Brotherhood will be executed by a dictatorship, shall we consider this oppression justified according to Islamic standards? God does not want us to have blind faith. He wants us to believe in what we practice. and that takes thought.

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