The recent decision of the President to lift a five-year old moratorium on the execution of all regular death sentences has attracted strong criticism from a number of human rights groups and activists. However, it is disappointing to note that, despite being a momentous occasion, it has not offered any promise of meaningful reform in the use of the President’s discretion or the critic’s privilege.

While the human rights groups may want to take credit for initial imposition of the moratorium, the fact is that the moratorium was announced on 21 June 2008 to mark the first posthumous birthday of PPP’s slain leader Benazir Bhutto. This moratorium was initially lifted in the wake of the attack on APS Peshawar last December so as to execute only “jet black” terrorists with or without the help of military courts. However, riding on that slippery slope, the Government has now restored the orders for execution of all death row prisoners without any hope of relief from the President.

It is understandable that human rights groups and activists should oppose the death penalty. Their argument is simple: since it is humanly impossible to devise an infallible criminal justice so as to completely eliminate the risk of error in awarding the death penalty, we must not use this peculiar form of punishment. While this is a logically sound argument, it fails to realize that the argument against death penalty in its present form has evolved in Western Europe over the past five hundred years and cannot easily be applied to Pakistan without accounting for the local historical and philosophical context. Indeed, their argument is relevant to Pakistan only because of the existence here of a modern-looking judicial system

The fact is that Pakistan is now operating on constitutionally protected Islamic criminal law that provides for justice under the principle of Qisas - that is, life for life unless pardoned by the heirs of the deceased. As it happens, this tribal approach to criminal justice adopted by Islamic law sits rather well with the cultures of biradri and ghairat prevalent in Pakistan. The fact that there are more than 40 other countries still using death penalty – including secular democratic countries like the United States, India, and Japan – further weakens the argument by way of universal morality. In these conditions, the demand for the repeal of, or a moratorium on death penalty appears to be premature, if not a misconceived and misdirected patchwork of modern jurisprudence on an essentially medieval social fabric. Having said this, though the problematics of an admittedly difficult situation cannot be ignored, it is morally repugnant to ignore the barbarity of questionable executions. There might be no one systematic point from which to begin reforming the system, but protesting unabashed injustice is a good place to start.