Pakistan: Supreme Court’s suspension of death sentences exposes flaws in judicial system

The Pakistan Supreme Court’s decision to suspend death sentences passed by military courts is an important recognition of serious questions about the lawfulness of the country’s new military tribunal system, Amnesty International said.

The Supreme Court today suspended death sentences imposed by military courts, after the Supreme Court Bar Association challenged a constitutional amendment passed in January that sped up the prosecution of terror cases and moved them from civilian to military courts.

There are more than 8,000 prisoners on death row in Pakistan. Since a moratorium on the execution of civilians was lifted in December, at least 76 people have been executed.

“This ruling by the Supreme Court is a step in the right direction, which points to something being very wrong in the government’s relentless rush to execute death row prisoners since December,” said David Griffiths, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia Pacific Director.

“There are serious flaws in the Pakistani judicial system on every level. Torture is frequently used to extract ‘confessions’ and defendants often lack access to legal counsel. The use of military tribunals in capital cases is particularly troubling, as rights could be violated in the rush to ensure speedy terrorism convictions.”

“Military courts should never be used to try civilians under any circumstances. There is no excuse for sacrificing the right to a fair trial in the name of national security.”

Military tribunals will not be allowed to try terror cases, which can lead to death sentences, until the Supreme Court makes its final ruling on the legality of the tribunals – but it is unclear when this will happen.

“Today’s ruling is an opportunity for authorities in Pakistan to change course on the death penalty. A suspension of death sentences imposed by military tribunals is not enough. Thousands of lives are at risk until the government imposes a moratorium on all executions with a view to full abolition of the death penalty,” said David Griffiths.

As of today, 140 countries are abolitionist in law or practice. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception, regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt or innocence of the individual; or the method of execution.