Pakistan witnesses no let-up in executions by military courts, UN Human Rights Committee expresses concern
The United Nations (UN) has asked Pakistan to review the legislation relating to military courts that gives them the authority to impose the death penalty, reform military courts to ensure fair trial and to ensure that coerced confessions are never admissible in legal proceedings, after a recent, first-ever UN review of the country’s record of implementing its civil and political rights.
The UN Human Rights Committee “notes with concern”, that since Pakistan lifted the moratorium on death penalty in December 2014, it has been one of the states with the highest rate of executions, and that the death penalty is given for crimes such as drug trafficking and blasphemy — even to juveniles and persons with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities — which do not fall under the category of most serious crimes.
Additionally, “a policy of blanket refusal of clemency applications is allegedly in place…and that executions are allegedly carried out in a manner that constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment”. Also, Pakistani migrant workers under death sentence overseas have reported insufficient consular and legal services provided to them.
The UN Human Rights Committee is the body of independent experts that periodically monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of the state parties. The ICCPR is a crucial multilateral treaty that came into force in 1976 and commits its ratifying parties to respect rights such as the right to life, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, right to due process and fair trial, among other rights.
Initially, a government has to report to the UN within a year of acceding to the covenant after which its record is typically reviewed every four years by independent experts working under the aegis of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The most recent review was held between 3 July and 28 July in Geneva where seven countries, including Pakistan, were reviewed. Though Pakistan ratified the treaty in June 2010, its initial report to the committee was reviewed only this month.
Though the UN Committee “notes” the need for Pakistan to take measures for combating terrorism, but is concerned that the current definition of ‘terrorism’ under the Anti-Terrorism Act is “very broad” and that confessions made in police custody are admitted as evidence in courts.
It recommends that Pakistan “review the legislation relating to the military courts with a view to abrogating their jurisdiction over civilians as well as their authority to impose the death penalty; reform the military courts to bring their proceedings into full conformity with Articles 14 and 15 of the covenant to ensure a fair trial”.
Also, it asks Pakistan to “ensure that coerced confessions are never admissible in legal proceedings; take all measures necessary to prevent torture including by strengthening the training of judges, prosecutors, the police and military and security forces”.
Recently, a Pakistani military court awarded death sentence to an Indian national, Kulbhushan Jadhav, over alleged spying and has denied consular access to India despite many requests by New Delhi for the same. This resulted in New Delhi dragging Pakistan to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the ICJ has put a stay on Jadhav’s hanging pending its final decision. The case has strained the already-troubled relations between the neighbours.
The UN body states that there are “various lists” that control the entry or exit in Pakistan, including the infamous Exit Control List (ECL), but the UN has no information on such lists, “including the criteria or grounds for the listing, the process for listing or delisting names, and the safeguards available to prevent misuse of these lists”.
A joint submission to the UN Committee by IFEX (a global network of 110 organisations to promote the freedom of expression), Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) and the International Network of Human Rights (RIDH), states in its report that in reality the ECL is an effective tool to suppress dissent. The report cites the example of Cyril Almeida, assistant editor of the daily Dawn, who was placed on the ECL in October last year, which barred him from travelling outside the country, in retaliation for a story published the same month titled ‘Act against militants or face international isolation, civilians tell military’, “that reported on a meeting of senior military officials and government leaders where concerns on connections between intelligence agencies and some militant organisations were raised”. Almeida’s name was removed from the ECL four days later after intense pressure from the media and civil society groups.
The Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and its authorised officers have “overbroad powers” “without sufficient independent judicial oversight mechanisms”, observes the UN committee. Also, the mandatory mass retention of traffic data by service providers for a minimum of one year, “unduly restrictive” licensing requirements of service providers; and “the sharing of information and cooperation with foreign governments without judicial authorization or oversight”, are all issues of concern to the global body.
The IFEX-PPF-RIDH submission cites the instance of Islamabad High Court’s (IHC’s) order to the PTA on 27 February to block social media sites that are deemed to be blasphemous. Similarly, on 31 March 2017, the IHC “ordered PTA to remove all blasphemous content from the internet and requested extradition of the blogger who left the country”.
The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) exercises its powers over the content of media outlets, including suspending over 20 programmes in the past four years, “the lack of clarity on procedural safeguards and oversight mechanisms to ensure that PEMRA exercises its powers consistent with the principle of freedom of expression” and the “broad and vague grounds for cancellation of registration of these organisations”, is a matter grave concern to the UN human rights experts.
Article 295- A of the Pakistani Constitution stipulates imprisonment of up to ten years, and/or fine for “whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of the citizens of Pakistan, by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representations insults the religion or the religious beliefs” while Article 295- B stipulates life imprisonment for “whoever wilfully defiles, damages or desecrates a copy of the Holy Qur’an”.
In March 2017, Pakistan launched a media campaign cautioning people to exercise self-restraint in their online activities, states the joint international NGOs’ submission. The recently-deposed former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif “directed the state machinery to find those responsible for putting blasphemous content on social media and bring them to justice without delay”, it further adds.
It also mentions the tragic case of Mashal Khan, a Muslim student at the Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, who was killed by an angry mob in the premises of the university in April over false allegations of posting blasphemous content online.
Examples of website blocking, mentioned in the joint submission include the July 2013 case of Al-Jazeera’s website being blocked after it published a document called “Pakistan’s Bin Laden Dossier” detailing the findings of a commission of inquiry established by Pakistan’s military and intelligence branches into the Bin Laden raid.
It also mentions the shutting down of the queer website: queer.pk—which was the country’s first Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender website. The UN Committee “regrets” the absence of information from the Pakistani delegation, which was led by the Pakistani Minister for Human Rights Kamran Michael, on effective measures to prevent and punish all forms of discriminations against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons.
While the UN treaty-monitoring body welcomes the establishment of Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights in 2015, it is “concerned” that the commission was not given authorisation to travel to Geneva to meet the UN committee members, giving indications that the commission is not fully independent.
The UN is also concerned that “the Constitution and federal laws as well as the jurisdiction of highest courts do not apply in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)”.
Among other recommendations, the UN Committee asks Pakistan to ensure that no juvenile or person with psychosocial or intellectual disabilities is executed or sentenced to death, to repeal all blasphemy laws, that the execution protocol is brought in line with international human rights standards, to criminalise enforced disappearance and “put an end to the practice of enforced disappearance and secret detention”, to review its legislation on data collection and surveillance, to carry out the registration of undocumented Afghan refugees, to decriminalise defamation and to review legal provisions relating to the freedom of expression and PEMRA.
The committee has asked Pakistan to submit its next periodic report by 28 July, 2020 and “to include in that report information on the implementation of the present concluding observations”.