06/26/2008, 00.00
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Stop executions to honour Bhutto, Pakistani PM says

by Qaiser Felix
Pakistan’s prime minister is set to ask President Musharraf for an act of clemency on Benazir Bhutto’s birthday, commuting all death sentences into life in prison. Radical Muslims are opposed. The Church is in favour but wants to go one step further and have the death sentence abolished altogether, not single acts of mercy.
Islamabad (AsiaNews) – The prime minister of Pakistan announced in the National Assembly that his government would recommend that President Pervez Musharraf commute the death sentences of thousands of prisoners into life imprisonment as part of a birthday tribute to slain Pakistan People’s Party leader Benazir Bhutto. The measure would not however apply to those condemned or terrorism-related crimes.

According to this year’s annual report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, more than 7,000 prisoners are on death row in Pakistan. Last year 309 people received the death sentence and 134 convicts were executed, the report said.

Many rights organisations welcome the proposal but for radical Muslims it is against the Qur‘an and the government has no right to abolish death penalty or commute it to the life imprisonment.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl, strongly condemned the proposal, calling on the Prime Minister to withdraw it because it is not in accordance with Islam.

Sheikh Alauddin, a member of the Punjab Provincial Assembly also denounced the federal government’s move, calling it contrary to the Qur‘an.

Conversely, the Church is in favour. “It is a positive step by the government,” said Fr Bonnie Mendes. “Still we have to see whether the government implements it in cases involving the blasphemy laws or not, that is our concern.”

“This is a welcome decision by the government because the repeal of death penalty is a long standing demand of rights groups in Pakistan,” said Mehdi Hassan, a well known intellectual and vice president of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Punjab chapter.

Hassan told AsiaNews that the death penalty was inhuman because it “cannot be undone once it is carried out, unlike other forms of punishment. If a prisoner is condemned to death by mistake or because of legal complications that would be a great injustice.”

“People who kill others,” he added, “are in need of proper treatment or a psychiatrist, not the death sentence because this severe punishment does not provide them with chance to be a good citizen again and repair their wrongdoing.”

As for exceptions, “the fact that the proposal does not cover people condemned for terrorism is a political decision, not a social one,” whilst opposition to the proposal only comes from extremists who are “against the abolition of the death penalty” no matter what. Yet “in the Qur‘an the death penalty is not the only punishment for killing someone”, he explained. “We have more than one option for this situation in the Qur‘an.”

For him those options can be interpreted in many ways but all that this needs is greater consensus, dialogue and education because in the end “human rights should be seen as a priority in our society.”

“Pakistan has recently signed the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights that suggests abolishing the death penalty. The government should focus on that,” said Peter Jacob, executive secretary of the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Church.

Commuting death sentences “is not a solution to the problem because in the future there will be death sentences again,” he said. “The government should instead abolish the death penalty and educate the masses to respect to life. That is a real solution to the problem.”

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