Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 21 October 2019

Pakistan death penalty: majority of reviewed convictions overturned study finds

A two-year study of cases found a litany of errors could mean hundreds on death row are innocent

Pakistani security officials stand guard outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan. EPA
Pakistani security officials stand guard outside the Supreme Court in Islamabad, Pakistan. EPA

Hundreds of innocent people could be languishing on death row in Pakistan after being sentenced to hang in miscarriages of justice, research from human rights groups claims.

A two-year-study of capital punishment cases in the country of 210 million found that when reviewed by the Supreme Court, 78 per cent of death sentences were overturned and that convictions appeared to be rife with flimsy evidence and flawed verdicts.

Delays in the congested court system meant the victims of such miscarriages spent years waiting to be cleared, if the mistakes were ever uncovered at all.

The two groups behind the research have now called for a moratorium on executions while the system is overhauled and judges are retrained.

Researchers from the Pakistan-based Foundation for Fundamental Rights and UK-based Reprieve said a study of hundreds of capital punishment cases showed the system was broken.

Their research looked at 310 publicly recorded Supreme Court decisions on death sentence cases between 2010 and 2018. Pakistan's top court overturned the death sentence handed down by lower courts in nearly four-out-of-five cases it reviewed, the researchers found.

In case after case, Supreme Court judges questioned the strength of evidence used to send people to the gallows as well as the lower courts' reliance on unreliable witness testimony. Lower courts were also failing to follow the Supreme Court's direction and handing down death sentences for crimes that top judges feel no longer merit them, the researchers concluded.

“When nearly four-out-of-five cases that reach the Supreme Court are deeply flawed, it is safe to say that the current trial practice is broken – and is wasting an enormous amount of judicial energy and creating a large burden on the criminal justice system,” a 54-page report on their findings concluded.

Pakistan has one of the largest death rows in the world, at around 4,700 prisoners. The country is also one of the most prolific executioners, hanging more than 500 people since lifting its seven-year stay on capital punishment in December 2014.

Lawyers told The National that a vast case backlog and a chronic shortage of judges were contributing to the miscarriages.

The research found the Supreme Court overturned the original death sentences in 78 per cent of cases, either totally acquitting the accused, commuting the sentence, or ordering a review. Thirty-nine per cent of the Supreme Court's reported judgements were acquittals.

“Thus nearly two in every five prisoners sentenced to death in the study were determined to have been wrongfully convicted and may be innocent of the crime for which they were convicted and sentenced to death,” the research found. “The average accused spends an average of 10 years under the Damoclean sword of a death sentence before having his case heard by the Supreme Court.”

If the findings of the public Supreme Court decisions can be extended to the rest of death row, “then nearly two in every five of the prisoners on death row may be innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted and sentenced to death”, the researchers said. Nearly four out of every five could ultimately have their sentences overturned, commuted or reviewed.

Supreme Court judges repeatedly cited over-reliance on weak witness testimony, a tendency for police to frame suspects and a lack of evidence as they quashed convictions.

Lawyers said such problems were not restricted to death sentence cases.

Rani Bibi spent 19 years in jail for a crime she did not commit. Alongside her father, brother and cousin, she was wrongly convicted at trial of murdering her husband in a case filled with gross legal negligence.

Sentenced to life on flimsy evidence, it was only when a crusading lawyer took on her case that an appeal was heard. It later transpired her earlier attempt at appeal had never progressed because jailers had failed to get the correct signatures and thumbprints on her application.

“The allegations were groundless, the process had been concocted,” she told The National. Her father died while in custody.

Updated: May 18, 2019 04:22 PM

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