Monday, December 14, 2015

Pakistan's Supreme Court takes a brave and difficult decision

I have been an opponent of the death penalty since before I was even a teenager. It is exceptionally rare that I could regard the failure of an appeal against a death sentence as something likely to strengthen human rights.

Yet because of the utterly egregious grounds in which lawyers for self-confessed assassin Mumtaz Quadri argued for the quashing of his death sentence, Pakistan's Supreme Court was absolutely right not to accept their arguments.

Quadri was one of the bodyguards of the former Governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer, who had argued for clemency in the case of an elderly Christian woman called Asia Bibi, who had been accused of blasphemy by neighbours. Court transcripts show numerous inconsistencies in the evidence presented and reporters say they dare not repeat Bibi's testimony lest they also be accused of blasphemy: Salmaan Taseer investigated the case and made clear his view that her sentencing to death was an injustice.

Because of his expressing that opinion, Quadri then shot the man he was employed to guard 27 times with an AK-47 assault rifle, at the local market near his home in Islamabad, as he was returning to his car after meeting a friend for lunch.

He was arrested at the scene by his fellow bodyguards, holding the murder weapon, and has never denied killing Salmaan Taseer. The basis of his appeal was that if someone has committed blasphemy then anyone has the right to kill them, and that the Punjab governor's plea for mercy for a woman convicted of blasphemy, and criticisms of the way the blasphemy law had been used, were themselves also blasphemous.

If that argument had been upheld it would have amounted to a declaration of open season for fundamentalist Muslims on anyone else they didn't like. Islamists would be able to murder any moderate Muslim or non-Muslim whose views they disagreed with and justify it by claiming that the victim had committed blasphemy.

Minority Affairs Minister Shahbaz Bhatti, who was the only Christian member of Pakistan's Cabinet, also supported clemency for Asia Bibi, telling reporters that he was "committed to the principle of justice for the people of Pakistan" and willing to die fighting for her release. He too was murdered to taking that stand, being shot dead by gunmen who ambushed his car near his residence in Islamabad, presumably because of his position on the blasphemy laws.

Over the four years since these murders there has been a great deal of legal argument over the case with Quadri initially being convicted of both murder and terrorism, and then having the terrorism charge quashed but the murder charge upheld. However, this week it appears that the legal process is coming to a close, and despite a great deal of pressure from some quarters Pakistan's Supreme Court has rejected Quadri's appeal.

Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and head of Human Rights Watch in Pakistan, hailed the upholding of Qadri’s conviction for murder as a “brave decision” and “the first step in introducing some rational discourse on blasphemy”.

Taseer’s daughter Sanam said she was against the death penalty in principle but that the verdict was “wonderful for the country because it shows there is rule of law”.

There is no easy answer in a case like this, and I will not be celebrating if Quadri is executed. If he were to admit that what he did was wrong, apologise to Taseer's family, and ask for his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment not as a killer claiming his actions were justified but as a human being who admits he has done wrong but asks for forgiveness, I would be in favour of granting it.

But in rejecting the case that Quadri's lawyers actually presented, Pakistan's Supreme Court has taken a step towards building a better Pakistan, and away from a course which could have led to a vicious circle of murder and anarchy.

Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were brave men who had a vision of a tolerant Pakistan. I regret all the deaths in this sad saga, including that of Mumtaz Quadri if he is indeed executed. But if the vision of Taseer and Bhatti comes to fruition, their deaths will not be in vain.


Jim said...

I cant agree with any death sentence imposed by any state. That said, I have no right to tell Pakistan that it must or must not allow it. I think that is a matter for the people of Pakistan to decide really.

I must say though it was a rather weak route of appeal on those grounds (and again in my opinion) no reduction in the sentence given should have been granted.

let me clarify that, I said no reduction in the sentence given should have been granted, is not the same thing as saying I agree with the sentence given in the first place.

As I also said earlier, I guess Pakistan laws and sentences are a matter for the people of Pakistan, though I can only hope if the death sentence is carried out then it is carried out properly, and not in so poor a manner as we have seen in recent times in the USA.

Chris Whiteside said...

I think that is the point, really. He did not dispute that he carried out the murder but asked for his sentence to be quashed because of an argument that the victim deserved it - which he was not able to prove even under the present law because the court found that criticising the way some people have brought charges under the blasphemy laws is not itself blasphemy.

It is an extreme irony that the fact that Quadri's lawyers were brazen enough to present such an argument to a court proves only too clearly that what the victim had said about how the blasphemy laws can be abused - e.g. the statement which Mumtaz Quadri murdered Salmaan Taseer for making - is absolutely true.