LAHORE: The speakers and audience of a session at the Asma Jahangir Conference 2018 on Sunday stood divided on whether the death sentence acted as a deterrent to crime.

The session was moderated by Asma Jahangir’s daughter Munizae, who started the debate by quoting Amnesty International’s figures according to which 7,000 people were on death row in Pakistan.

The speakers included lawyers, human rights activists, and retired or serving senior police officials.

Lahore High Court Judge Shehram Sarwar Chaudhry said he was a part of the bench that was hearing appeals against death sentence since 2016. The bench had so far heard 1,400 appeals against convictions. “We have directions to treat such appeals with extreme caution. We have confirmed just seven death sentences,” he added.

He said he had to follow dictums of the Supreme Court, Constitution and law while hearing appeals against death penalties.

Senior lawyer Azam Nazeer Tarar said Pakistan had the highest murder rate despite death penalty, which did not deter homicide. Terrorism and rape-cum-murder were rampant too. He acknowledged that the high court was confirming only one per cent of the death sentences awarded by trial courts.

Former UN Human Rights and Drug Policy adviser Zaved Mahmood opposed the death penalty and said it did not help prevent violence in Iraq. Mostly the poor who did not have money to defend themselves were given this punishment, he claimed.

HRCP council member Kamran Arif said: “We are hanging people but are also allowing some to get away with murder.”

Senator and former inspector general (IG) of police, Rana Maqbool, favoured the death sentence, asking if those whose relatives were murdered by terrorists had no rights. “Can society afford to give latitude to their killers?” he asked. He maintained that terrorism was controlled with death penalty, and paid tributes to the Counter-Terrorism Department and its head for combating terrorists.

Former IG Dr Shoaib Suddle claimed that resumption of the death penalty in 2015 after the Peshawar school attack had helped reduce homicide. He said a perfect criminal justice system was very important for preventing execution of innocent people.

Deputy Inspector General Humayun Bashir Tarar favoured the death sentence, saying the state should have the right to punish a criminal. “Severity of punishment is less important than its certainty. The severity would deliver if there is certainty of life and death sentence,” he added.

Meanwhile, in another session, PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, Awami National Party leader Afrasiab Khattak, senior PML-N leader Ayaz Sadiq and Human Rights Minister Shireen Mazari shared their memories of Asma, talked about the country’s political situation and discussed upholding of democratic values.

Former senator Khattak said that although a Charter of Democracy was signed and the military’s ‘adventurism’ blocked through the 18th Amendment, a new challenge cropped up in 2012 when the judiciary sent an elected prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, packing. “This is judicialisation of Pakistani politics. It is a creeping coup and it has been around since 2014 along with political engineering.”

He further said he did not blame the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf for rigging, but the military. He also talked about the horrors of mainstreaming of extremist parties.

Mr Sadiq recounted some of the milestones achieved during the previous PML-N government, and said the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) must not be made into “Nawaz Accountability Bureau”. He also condemned the way some senior professors were handcuffed by the NAB, and observed a minute’s silence to condemn the act.

Minister Mazari started off by defending her government, saying they had inherited a lot of difficult situations and their agenda was reform. It was unfair to blame the PTI for the ills of the previous governments, she added. She also hoped Mr Bilawal and his party would support her on human rights issues she raised in parliament, and promised to take up the issue of missing persons. She also lamented the non-implementation of the National Action Plan.

At the end, Ms Mazari recalled her fond memories of Asma Jahangir whom she said was a friend from school. She paid tribute to Asma’s struggle for her values and principles as well as her fight to build her career as a lawyer while juggling her role as a dedicated mother.

Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2018