THE BLOG
01/31/2014 05:39 am ET Updated Apr 01, 2014

Suspended March to the Gallows

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair..." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities.

As a woman who befriended me at the airport was particularly eager to explain, suicide bombings, widespread terrorist attacks, and political tensions aside, people in Pakistan live ordinary lives. This evaluation of a country obscured by negative media coverage flowing from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas corroborates the lighthearted commentary of a new friend from Lahore, who sarcastically relates: "I need not remind you of all the death in Pakistan, and how it bestows upon us the obligation to live a little."

Hence, true to both sentiments, upon departure from Lahore airport, racism meets sexism as I am approached and identified for an instant upgrade whilst buying a bottle of water. Amongst tense Pakistan-United States relations, the first treason trial in the country's history (that of the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, relating to his decision in 2007 to suspend the constitution and impose emergency rule), rhythmic power cuts spiraling from the nation's severe energy crisis, occasional affection from the mosquito and irregular amounts of Kashmiri chai, I had arrived in Pakistan.

Assisting with strategic litigation on a few of the minor Catch-22s of the rule of law, such as the imposition of the Death Penalty, police torture and the increasing erosion of civil liberties transported by the "war on terror", I carefully abandoned The New York Times and Harvard Law School related paraphernalia to embrace the peculiar contradictions of capital punishment and the capital of the Punjab province, Pakistan.

Whether or not one believes that the Death Penalty is the ultimate, irreversible denial of human rights, systemic fair trials violations, and the routine inhumane treatment of prisoners within the Pakistani justice system, inevitably places the country in breach of its international obligations. Analogous to the system for capital punishment in the United States, in Pakistan the Death Penalty is often applied in a discriminatory fashion and is used disproportionately against the poor and minority groups. Furthermore, whilst the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated, it is only exacerbated within the Pakistani system, via extensive fundamental rights violations.

As a new government attempts to display its resolve in fighting crime and militancy, despite a temporary stay, the Death Penalty in Pakistan has been reinstated as a renewed mechanism for deterrence. Thus, at a time when justice demands sight, the decision to reassemble the machinery for death in Pakistan has become inextricably linked to the "war on terror."

Accordingly, as an Interior Ministry official stated to several news organizations, speaking on condition of anonymity, the Sharif government has resolved to deal with executions on a case-by-case basis, with those individuals "related to terrorism" being selected first to receive the Death Penalty. By adopting a death ideology, the State has thus decided to reproduce killing in the hope of deterring terrorist activity and preventing criminality.

Within this context, a central tension between the normality of everyday life, on the one hand, and oppression and hostility on the other, is inescapable. Opposing pairs stand equally matched in their struggle, marking the facets of an outsider's experience of Pakistan.

Amidst a myriad of conflicts, I have had an opportunity to observe the extent to which the pretext of national security has been used to justify derailing democratic and legal process in Pakistan. While liberalism catches up with tradition, absurdity with caution, and illumination with despair, the current status of the Death Penalty within the criminal justice system offers just one overwhelming example of how an institution for justice can succumb to the swift curtailment of the rule of law.

Some 150 countries worldwide, including 30 States in the Asia-Pacific region, have abolished the Death Penalty in law or in practice. Yet in Pakistan the noose is temporarily suspended in motion, igniting a fresh debate over the hollowness of capital punishment.

Contrary to trends in contemporary international law that verge towards abolition, and extending the imprint that the "war on terror" continues to inflict on the legal order worldwide, in June 2013 Pakistan's new government removed an unofficial moratorium on the Death Penalty that had been invoked since 2008.

In September 2013, the government announced that executions would be stayed provisionally following objections from outgoing President Asif Ali Zardari and international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International. Yet the temporary moratorium on capital punishment currently in place is an exceptionally fragile one.

Undeniably, and as alluded to above, many of the factors affecting the imposition of the Death Penalty in Pakistan mirror the problems that affect the system of capital punishment in America. Indeed, the prevalence of bias, mental health issues, ineffective assistance of counsel, and flawed investigations undoubtedly present pervasive flaws in both systems. Yet the use of capital punishment in Pakistan is further implicated by the contemporary political dynamic fueled by the "war on terror", as well as the pervasive use of torture as a tactic of interrogation within the Pakistani justice system.

These enhanced pressures provide a daunting backdrop and an added complexity to the work of Death Penalty abolitionists and conservative advocates alike. Not least for they inevitably penetrate any comprehension of the Death Penalty as a mechanism for justice. In consequence, even with a deeply entrenched racial history implanted in the application of the Death Penalty in America, and notwithstanding the recent spectacle of Ohio's botched execution of Dennis McGuire, in Pakistan, the scale of injustice in the system for capital punishment is unparalleled.

Not least because the country has an extremely large Death Row population, with over 8,000 condemned prisoners currently suspended on their march to the gallows. This makes it amongst the largest Death Row populations in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.

A disconnection between the particularly heinous shortcomings of the justice system and inhabitation of an ordinary side of life inevitably solidifies as rights hang in the balance. Evident in one of the most renowned jails, Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi is home to the whitewashed wooden gallows that stand as an ominous symbol of resistance to contemporary trends in international law.

Above the spot where some of Pakistan's prisoners will be put to death by hanging, should the transitory moratorium on capital punishment lapse, two inscriptions are written in Urdu script. The first is an Islamic prayer traditionally spoken when someone dies; the second a candid reflection, amid all of the morbidity of retribution by hanging, that proclaims: "We hate the crime, not the human being."

In addition to offending fundamental legal rights and protections, such as categorical bars against the imposition of the Death Penalty for juveniles and the mentally ill, enhanced political considerations persist in relation to the application of the Death Penalty. Not least the Pakistani Taliban's opposition to the government's decision to reinstate it.

For example, the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, an alliance of militant groups, overtly threatened the government in a public letter in August 2013 sent to news organizations in Pakistan. Threatening that there would be severe consequences if the government executed the group's Death Row activists, the message warned that the group would consider the hanging of its members to constitute an "act of war".

Thus, partly as a consequence of an elected government taking over power after more than eight years of military rule, the "tough on crime" approach that has ultimately emerged to address the issue of terrorism in a country stained by recurring media reports of extremist activities, has inevitably reopened a flawed system for justice.

As acknowledged by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, a deeply defective and discriminatory process persists from arrest, to trial, to execution within the Pakistani system of capital punishment. According to the Human Rights Commission, 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.

In like manner to Western citizens subsisting in the first world as the torture exposed at Guantanamo Bay occurred in a legal void, every day the citizens of Pakistan must inhabit an ordinary aperture opposite the debris of this enduring night of abuse within the country's justice system.

The upward struggle that legal advocates must undergo in Pakistan to promote and protect fundamental rights and the rule of law is overwhelming. Yet, parting from the United States, previously Pakistan's most significant ally and largest donor of civilian and military aid, compels me to reflect on the role that other countries have to play in securing respect for human rights and the rule of law beyond borders.

Indeed objective advocates must concede that the status of both capital punishment and the use of torture in interrogations undertaken at the behest of other governments has a significant role to play in diminishing systematic injustice internationally. After all, I first saw the potential of strategic litigation in Pakistan as I followed the cases of Pakistani nationals detained indefinitely by the United States at Bagram Prison, Afghanistan. In contravention of the Geneva Conventions, they were taken in anti-terrorist operations, held without access to lawyers, and suspended beyond the realms of the law.

Observing the blinking lights drape the homes and buildings in colourful celebration of Eid Milad un-Nabi, appreciating traditional dance at a Pakistani wedding, and sampling Lassi overlooking the beauty of the valleys pitted against the backdrop of Islamabad's golden radiance, I have been lucky as an outsider to have seen more to Pakistan beyond matters of life and death.

True to the melody of A Tale of Two Cities, irregularity is the rule of the universe. Despite being ranked second in the list of most negatively rated countries by a global poll for BBC World Service, which surveyed 24,090 people around the world in 2012, I have been fortunate to experience more to a country inevitably sensationalized and scarred by international coverage of terrorist militancy and human rights abuse.

Offering a poignant reminder of the erosion of civil liberties across the Atlantic, a nation listens to Obama's eagerly awaited State of the Union Address. To a round of applause from inhabitants of a side of life not wholly implicated by the egregious human rights violations that spiral from the West, the President laments:

"With the Afghan war ending, this needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world."

As such, we might say of our times, it was the age of global transience and suspension of human rights, the dawn of universal acceptance, the continuing night of deprivation. We might thus concede as the lingua franca of global moral thought that we have remained true not to our constitutional ideals, but to the acceptance of suspension.