If you ask anyone in Pakistan to tell you about the country’s criminal justice system, it is likely you will be told a tale that is both horrific and depressing. You will hear about a police force that is poorly trained and ill-equipped, suffering from capacity constraints, institutionalized corruption, and political capture, all of which impede its ability to effectively discharge its duties and responsibilities. You will listen to stories about torture, brutality, and forced confessions, with the need to produce ‘criminals’ in the absence of proper procedures and investigations leading to the use of these measures to deliver results. You will leave the conversation with the firm belief that the police in Pakistan requires urgent reform and oversight, barring which it will remain an organization within which very little public trust can be reposed.

Should you choose to broaden the scope of your inquiry to include the courts and other government organizations, there is a strong chance you will hear a similar litany of complaints and grievances. Corruption and nepotism will feature strongly in any discussion of what ails Pakistan’s institutions, as will accounts of general ineptitude, incompetence and inefficiency. In a country where it is all too evident that different rules apply for the rich and the poor, and where there is little to prevent the average citizen from being subjected to the arbitrary power of the state or the predatory elites that dominate it, it should not be surprising to discover that there is little popular faith in concepts like accountability, due process, and impartiality.

It is in this context that we must re-visit the case of Shafqat Hussain, finally executed last week after months of attempts by his lawyers to have his death sentence commuted on the grounds that he was a minor when he was convicted of murder in 2004. On four previous occasions, Shafqat Hussain’s execution was postponed as attempts were made to ascertain the truth of claims about his age, as well as to address alleged shortcomings on the part of the lawyers who had represented him when he was convicted. Despite an international outcry against the government’s relentless desire to see this man hanged, with much of the debate focusing on the obvious problems with the manner in which Shafqat Hussain’s ‘confession’ was extracted and trial was conducted, and despite the best efforts of his lawyers, whose efforts were rewarded with constant threats and utterly unfounded allegations about their intentions, the government ultimately decided that ‘justice’ could only be served by depriving yet another person of their life.

Over the past few months, there have been many who have questioned the focus on Shafqat Hussain. The arguments advanced by these critics have generally focused on a couple of familiar themes. Some have insisted that an eye for an eye is a perfectly valid basis upon which to base the country’s criminal justice system, and that the death penalty therefore makes sense when it comes to crimes like murder. Others have voiced support for the death penalty in general, believing that it acts as an effective deterrent to crime and should, therefore, be adopted as widely as possible. Predictably enough, a third line of reasoning has focused less on the case and the death penalty and has, instead, attempted to discredit attempts to save Shafqat Hussain by accusing his lawyers and supporters of being foreign-funded agents attempting to destabilize Pakistan and undermine its sovereignty.

The problems with all of these arguments should be self-evident. At the outset, there is a principled case to be made for abolishing the death penalty altogether; it is not immediately clear why the state should have the right to take the lives of prisoners, especially when depriving them of their liberty remains a significant punishment, incarceration serves to eliminate any threat that they might pose, and rehabilitation opens up the possibility of enabling them to eventually become constructive members of society. Giving the state absolute power over life and death also creates a slippery slope; the government might start by executing terrorists and murderers, but could then use similar justifications to go after political opponents, dissidents, and others whose ‘crimes’ might not objectively merit such a severe response.

Even if these principled arguments against the death penalty were to be put to one side, however, there are other, practical considerations that must be taken into account. For one, as evidence from around the world has shown, the death penalty does not actually deter criminality. Secondly, and more importantly, there is a tremendous potential for wrongful conviction and execution; even if it were to be conceded that the death penalty makes sense, surely the possibility that an innocent might be killed for a crime they did not commit should lead those who support the death penalty to re-evaluate their position. Even in the United States, where levels of police competence and capacity are far higher than Pakistan, recent advances in DNA technology have meant that, since 2011, 273 convicts have been exonerated of crimes they did not commit, with this number including 17 death row convicts.

It is here that the cognitive dissonance that characterises the debate on the death penalty in Pakistan becomes most obvious. Amidst widespread distrust for the police, the lower courts, and the government machinery, it is puzzling to see so many people readily and eagerly endorse the idea that the state can and should take the lives of convicts. Even if support for abolishing the death penalty in principle is thin on the ground, the notion that innocent people might be killed, or that procedural errors could lead to irreversible tragedies, should provide some grounds upon which to pause and take stock of the vengeful and vindictive approach that is currently being employed by the state in the name of ‘justice’.

The moratorium on the death penalty in Pakistan was ostensibly lifted so that convicted terrorists could be executed. Problematic as this policy is, it is even more difficult to discern how it can be interpreted to justify the deaths of people convicted of offences that are clearly not linked to terrorism. Since the moratorium was lifted, the government has been indiscriminate in its pursuit of ‘justice’, resolutely ignoring the fact that the serious issues with the criminal justice system in Pakistan all but guarantee innocents are being subjected to state-sanctioned murder. Indeed, even the execution of the mentally disabled has done nothing to sate the government’s bloodlust. Shafqat Hussain’s case is important not only because of the individual involved, but also because of how it is emblematic of broader issues that need to be discussed with regards to crime and punishment in Pakistan. Pointing all of this out does not make someone a foreign agent, nor does it undermine Pakistan in any way. Instead, it is a necessary part of the process through which this country might one day become a more tolerant and just place.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk