Pakistan is to end its moratorium on the death penalty in terror-related cases, the Prime Minister’s Office announced on Wednesday, a day after the Taliban killed 141 people in an attack on a school.
The assault on the Army Public School in Peshawar, the deadliest terror attack in Pakistan’s history, has triggered widespread revulsion. Political and military leaders have vowed to wipe out the homegrown Islamist insurgency that has killed thousands of ordinary Pakistanis in recent years.
“The prime minister has approved abolishment of moratorium on the execution of death penalty in terrorism-related cases,” an official from Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s office said.
Hanging remains on the Pakistani statute book and judges continue to pass the death sentence, but a de facto moratorium on civilian executions has been in place since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by a court martial and hanged in November 2012.
Rights campaign group Amnesty International estimates that Pakistan has more than 8,000 prisoners on death row, most of whom have exhausted the appeals process. Supporters of the death penalty in Pakistan argue that it is the only effective way to deal with the scourge of militancy.
The courts system is notoriously slow, with cases frequently dragging on for years, and there is a heavy reliance on witness testimony and very little protection for judges and prosecutors. This means terror cases are hard to prosecute, as extremists are able to intimidate witnesses and lawyers into dropping charges.
Even when militants are locked up, they are often either freed soon afterwards on bail or able to continue their activities from behind bars.
In September a judge ordered a prisoner to be hanged over a murder committed in 1996, but the sentence has not yet been carried out. In June last year Sharif’s newly elected government scrapped the moratorium in a bid to crack down on criminals and Islamist militants. But two weeks later it announced a further stay of executions after an outcry from rights groups and the then-president Asif Ali Zardari.
European Union officials indicated last year that if Pakistan resumed executions, it could jeopardize a highly prized trade deal with the bloc. An EU rights delegation warned it would be seen as a “major setback” if Pakistan restarted hangings.