Pakistan puts executions plan on hold
By Abubakar Siddique
The Pakistani government's decision to restore capital punishment was designed to put fear into the hearts of the country's hardened militants. Instead, the move provoked threats of war from Taliban factions as some of their comrades face imminent death by hanging. The government on Sunday temporarily suspended the executions.
Several convicts, including al-Qaeda-linked militants, were scheduled to be hanged next week. The execution plan prompted three major Taliban factions to issue a stern warning to leaders of the governing Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party (PML-N).
Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed said that the executions
have been suspended until Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Asif Ali Zardari when the present returns from a trip abroad.
The three militants who were scheduled to be hanged next week include Muhammad Aqeel (aka Dr Usman), who was convicted of masterminding a deadly attack against Pakistani military headquarters in 2009.
Leaders and purported spokesmen of Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan, Lashkar-e Jhangvi, and Mujahedeen-e Ansar told PML-N leaders to brace themselves for a wider war if Aqeel and the two other militants are executed next week.
The groups, widely seen as close allies, warned of suicide attacks and assassinations across the country of 180 million people, which is already reeling from militant violence.
Hassan Askari Rizvi, a defense analyst based in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore, suggests that the Taliban is feeling confident of pressuring the government after carrying out a string of successful assaults since the administration took office in June.
"Now, because of that confidence and inability of the government to control them, they have threatened the government," he says. "We will wait and see what happens [and] whether the government goes ahead with the executions of these three people. And if it does, then what is going to be the reaction of the Taliban? They can engage in violence. They have been engaging in violence, so they feel confident that they can do it in future."
Pakistan's new federal government, led by the conservative PML-N, ended a five-year suspension of executions in July. The administration declared that "there will be no general amnesty for the convicts waiting for execution."
The government had decided to speed up the executions of some 450 convicts who were supposed to be hanged during the past five years. It is prioritized the cases of those convicted on terrorism charges.
The PML-N administration is working to strengthen its anti-terrorism policies. It is pushing for a comprehensive policy to tackle extremist violence, and Sharif has called for terrorism to be defeated.
While marking the country's Independence Day on August 14, Sharif said: "Our will is strong and we have the capability to beat the terrorists."
A 'retrograde step'
During his five-year term, which ends in early September, incumbent President Zardari has never signed the death warrants legally required before hangings can be carried out His Pakistan Peoples Party enforced the suspension of executions during its five-year rule from 2008 to March of this year.
International human rights watchdog Amnesty International has opposed the restoration of the death penalty. It called the development a "shocking and retrograde step" and demanded an immediate restoration of the moratorium on the use of the death penalty.
The government's decision, however, attracted some backing from opposition politicians. Senator Afrasiab Khattak, a senior leader of the Awami National Party, sees no other alternative for Sharif. He maintains that the government needs to stand up to the Taliban because the "terrorists just want to establish a state within a state".
Despite his opposition to the administration and reservations about the death penalty, Khattak believes that the government's decision to lift the ban on executions cannot be blamed for provoking a war.
"These people [the Taliban] would have always reacted in the same way," he says. "Whether it was yesterday or it is today or it would happen tomorrow."
Currently, some 8,000 prisoners are on death row in Pakistan. Many of them have exhausted the appeals process. A lot of the convicts have links to the Taliban and other extremist factions. Before the moratorium was enforced in 2008, Pakistan was one of the world's leading practitioners of the death penalty, carrying out scores of executions every year.