KARACHI, Oct 10 (IPS) – As rights groups mark the Sixth World Day
Against the Death Penalty with an appeal for an end to executions in
Asia, Pakistan pulled one man back from the gallows and hinted that
it will soon honour pledges to commute the sentences of over 7,000
death row inmates.
Zulfiquar Ali, 38, was due to be executed on Oct. 8. But on
Wednesday, President Asif Ali Zardari granted him a two-week
The news was confirmed to the Ali family, including his two
daughters, aged ten and 11, by a midnight telephone call from the
interior minister, Rehman Malik.
“When the interior minister himself called me and gave me the news, I
knew a miracle had happened,” said Abudul Qayyum, Ali’s younger
brother, talking to IPS from Lahore.
The minister told him he should begin negotiations immediately with
the families of the two people who his brother was convicted of
Under Islamic law, the families can pardon Ali and receive “Diyat”
money in compensation.
“Time is short”, the minister reportedly told Qayyum.
Although Ali has only 14 days in which to reach an agreement with the
families, the minister also referred to the government’s plans to
commute the death sentences of most of the over 7,000 on Pakistan’s
“Malik told me that the government is working on this issue and I
should soon hear some good news.”
On Oct. 4, the newspaper Dawn reported that the government
was “finalising” its plans to commute these sentences.
“The law ministry is doing a thorough research on the subject to come
up with a final draft and fulfil the government’s promise to
commuting death sentences into life term(s),” sources told the paper.
As a tribute to Benazir Bhutto on her birthday on Jun. 21, Prime
Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani announced the commutation, one of the
largest in modern times. Bhutto was assassinated during an attack on
a Pakistan People’s Party rally last December.
Her widower, Zardari, was sworn in as Pakistan’s president on Sep. 9
after Pervez Musharraf was forced to resign.
“Since the prime minister announced his decision in June, 15 people
have been executed; and since the beginning of the year, a total of
35 people have been hanged,” said I.A. Rehman, chairperson of the
independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
Human rights activists and NGOs are predicting stiff opposition to
the government’s plans to push through the commutation.
“I think the government has made up its mind that it wants to do away
with the death penalty but there are people like the very orthodox
law minister, Farooq Naek, who are scared of taking bold decisions,”
said Syed Iqbal Haider, a former senator, former federal law minister
(1993) and one time the attorney general of Pakistan, who is
vehemently against the death penalty.
“The decision is a correct stand. The government needs to be resolute
and not budge under any pressure,” he added.
Rehman has called the commutation plans an “explosive issue” about
which Islamic groups would “kick up quite a row”.
Fierce opposition has already been expressed by the religious party
Jamiat-Ulema-Islam headed by Maulana Fazlur Rehman who is opposed to
the power vested upon the president to grant reprieves.
Opposition has also come from Pakistan’s Chief Justice, Abdul Hameed
Dogar, appointed by President Musharraf in November 2007.
After the commutation announcement by the prime minister, the Supreme
Court asked the attorney general and the ministries of interior and
law to submit written statements explaining the government’s position
on death row prisoners.
“What comes to mind is that Musharraf may have instigated it with a
view to bringing the government under pressure,” said Rehman. He
might also have wanted to see hanged the people who had tried to
Another reason for the Chief Justice’s opposition might also be that
he shared the view of the vast majority of Pakistanis who believed
that the death penalty was a Quranic injunction and should never be
“That is why we have been calling for a moratorium on executions and
reduction in the number of capital offences. We do foresee additional
difficulties but we hope the controversy should lead to healthy
conclusions,” said Rehman.
At the time of independence, in 1947, only murder and treason carried
the death sentence. But today there are 27 capital crimes, including
blasphemy, stripping a woman of her clothes in public and sabotage of
the railway system. Many of these were introduced during the 1977-88
military dictatorship of Gen.l Zia-ul-Haq.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has hailed the eleventh hour stay
of execution for Ali.
It also welcomed the president’s order that 475 prisoners at Adiala
prison in Rawalpindi should be moved from death row cells to open
barracks with ordinary inmates