April 10th, 2021
By Rehan Piracha
The number of death sentences awarded in Pakistan for various crimes has been found to have drastically declined from 632 in 2019, to 177 in 2020, according to statistics compiled by Justice Project Pakistan, an organization that works against death sentences and police torture among other issues.
According to JPP, by the end of 2020, the death row population in the country has also decreased from 4,225 in 2019 to 3,831 (including 29 women). JPP says the steady decrease in death row population is consistent with the trend from the previous years.
Death row population falls to 3,831
JPP in its research has also highlighted the fact that the number of prisoners increased in all four provinces during the COVID pandemic, but the number of condemned prisoners declined in the period.
Currently the JPP statistics reveal that there are 3,831 prisoners on death row in Pakistan. Punjab tops the list of death row prisoners with 2,902 condemned prisoners, including 23 women, followed by Sindh with 519 inmates on death row including five women. There are 47 death row inmates in Balochistan while there are 363 condemned prisoners, including a single woman, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
In a study on Pakistan Capital Punishment, Reprieve, an organization of international lawyers and investigators who fight for the victims of extreme human rights abuses with legal action, says that the Supreme Court overturned death sentences in around 78% of cases reviewed between 2010 and 2018.
The apex court either acquitted the accused, commuted the sentence, or ordered a review in the 310 judgments relating to death sentences during the period, according to the study.
39% condemned prisoners acquitted in 2010-18
The study findings also reveal that between 2010 and 2018, 39% of the Supreme Court’s reported judgments were acquittals.
Thus, nearly two in every five prisoners sentenced to death were determined to have been wrongfully convicted and may be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted and sentenced to death, the study notes.
“In 70% of the acquittals, the Supreme Court cited unreliable witness testimony as a reason for overturning the death sentence handed down by the lower courts,” read the findings of Pakistan Capital Punishment Study.
10 years wait for appeal in SC
The study also points out the stark fact that death row prisoners spend on average 10 years waiting before their case reaches the Supreme Court.
In its analysis of the Supreme Court’s approach to sentencing in capital cases, the Reprieve study finds that the Supreme Court has limited the death penalty to the most serious crimes and has established a presumption in favour of life sentences over the death penalty, adding that lower courts are approaching capital cases in ways that are at odds with Supreme Court jurisprudence, such as by sentencing individuals to death for low level, non-lethal offences like drug offences.
AGHS defends 22 death row inmates
Nida Aly, Executive Director of Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell (AGHS), says one of the factors of Pakistan’s big death row population is the liberal use of death sentences by the trial courts.
“Prisoners languish in jails for decades before reaching the appellate forum for their appeal to be heard,” she adds.
AGHS has been on forefront of efforts to provide legal assistance to poor and helpless death row inmates especially women, many of whom have been forgotten by their own families, she says.
“In the last 18 months AGHS represented 22 vulnerable prisoners who have been awarded death penalty,” she reveals.
AGHS has been successful in getting four death row inmates acquitted while death sentences of three other prisoners were commuted to life imprisonment, Aly tells Voicepk.net.
According to Aly, litigation in death row cases before the superior courts no doubt had a positive impact by setting up important judicial precedents.
The precedents will have a significant influence on cases of death row prisoners, she says. AGHS advocates for absolute abolition of death penalty and does not support capital punishment in any type of offence however extreme, she adds.