According to a letter sent in to this publication, five young persons, presently held at the Mach Jail in Balochistan face the death sentence. All were juveniles at the time they were sentenced, and have remained on death row for several years. In all the cases, appeals to the Balochistan High Court as well as the Supreme Court are pending.One of the boys was only 13 years old when he was arrested. Long delays in the trial process mean he has already spent over five years in jail. The case of the others is similar. Pakistan ranks among the dwindling number of countries in the world which retain capital punishment and is also part of an even smaller list of nations that apply it to minors. The poorly-enforced Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO) of 2000 sets up some safeguards for detained children, and discourages the award of death or long jail stints for minors — but the law does not override existing legislation which somehow permits them to be sentenced to death. Awareness of the JJSO’s provisions remains low, while of course, the issue of the death sentence itself is one which is rarely discussed in our society, with only a very small number of organisations campaigning against it. The writer of the letter, however, points out that in the case of the Mach detainees, their lawyers did not bring up the issue of their age at the time of their trial, or seek leniency on these grounds for them. The Islamabad-based Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child has written to the Chief Justice of the Balochistan High Court, pointing out a need to review the issue.
The central problem appears to be that our criminal justice system focuses on punishment, rather than reform. In the case of children this is especially unjust. At the very least, parliament should amend the existing laws so that the benefits of the JJSO can be passed on to juvenile offenders, and this clearly means no death penalty for any crime committed when the offender was not an adult.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 19th, 2012.