Dawn Editorial 12 February 2021

Rebuilding heritage

THE militant Islamic State group left a bloody trail of destruction in its wake before it was uprooted from large parts of Syria and Iraq after its nearly three-year reign of terror. The human toll was considerable and the terrorist outfit, operating from ungoverned spaces within Syria and Iraq, still manages to draw blood. Along with its murderous purges, IS also wreaked havoc across the Fertile Crescent by attacking priceless cultural spaces and artefacts that are the common heritage of humanity. In particular, the northern Iraqi city of Mosul — which at one time served as the ‘capital’ of IS — from where its late so-called ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi held forth, suffered particular damage as the militants rampaged through the ancient settlement. However, there is a positive development on this front, as Unesco has undertaken a project called Revive the Spirit of Mosul which aims to rebuild the destroyed heritage of the city. Work is already underway to reconstruct mosques and churches that were desecrated by IS, including the iconic centuries-old Al Nuri mosque. To heal the rifts created by the fanatical outfit, Muslims are helping rebuild churches, while Christians are doing their bit to restore mosques.

Of course, Mosul was not the only ancient site vandalised by IS. The Roman oasis of Palmyra in Syria; the ancient town of Nineveh in Iraq as well as a number of other mosques, churches and monasteries were attacked by the outfit in an orgy of hate and violence. Efforts such as the Unesco programme must be undertaken to restore other ancient treasures damaged by IS. True, the security situation in parts of Syria and Iraq is still fragile, but where circumstances allow, work must be started to rebuild what the terrorist group sought to destroy. It was in this part of the world that some of the earliest civilisations on earth started to take shape. Therefore, humanity has a common duty to restore the ancient heritage for the benefit of future generations.



A historic ruling

“CARRYING out the death sentence will not meet the ends of justice” — so ruled a five-member bench of the Supreme Court on Wednesday on the question of whether mentally ill prisoners who cannot understand the rationale and reason behind their punishment should be executed. In doing so, the bench has commuted the sentences of two prisoners and ordered that a fresh mercy plea, including complete medical records, be filed for the third prisoner, Ghulam Abbas, included in the petition. The judgement also noted systemic criminal justice failures — from investigation, to trial and appeal processes — effectively undermining the rights of some of Pakistan’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Moreover, the apex court issued detailed instructions to review and harmonise existing laws and rules, and to build the system’s capacity to recognise, assess and treat mental illness among the incarcerated population.
Kanizan Bibi and Imdad Ali — who have cumulatively endured half a century on death row — will now be shifted to a mental health facility to receive dignified care. Unfortunately, it is too late for others like Khizar Hayat, who spent 16 years on death row, mostly isolated, before he died chained to a prison hospital bed in 2019. With around 4,000 prisoners awaiting execution, Pakistan has arguably the highest death row population in the world. Since the moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, over 500 people have been executed. These include Ghulam Sarwar and Ghulam Qadir, two brothers who were hanged before being exonerated by the apex court in 2016. Then there are those like Muhammad Iqbal, who was released last year after 21 years on death row, sentenced to be executed at the age of 17 years for a murder he confessed to under torture.
This judgement — the culmination of a decade of campaigning by lawyers, human rights groups and mental health practitioners, and a reaffirmation of our commitment to local safeguards and international law — is truly historic. But there is still so much work to be done. For example, a commission on prison reforms set up by the Islamabad High Court in 2019 reported last year that the Ministry of Human Rights had standardised and streamlined the process for mercy petitions. Unfortunately, since 2014, neither the PML-N nor PTI government has exercised the power of the presidency to grant clemency to people who should not in good conscience be on death row. We may never know the full scale of the miscarriages of justice — and the lives, families and communities shattered by them — that have occurred under this broken system. But the effective ban on executions of prisoners with mental illness can represent a monumental first step in reviewing the entire system of capital punishment. There can only be one logical, just end to a retributive act that has no deterrent effect and risks doing so much harm: the abolition of capital punishment in its entirety.



Use of force

THE federal government has negotiated a settlement with the protesting government employees to give them increments but it has paid a price for mishandling the issue. The employees had been protesting for many months and demanding that their salaries be increased in the face of the rising cost of living.
However, it was only when they gathered in large numbers to protest against the indifference of the government that the relevant officials woke up to the crisis. The situation took an unfortunate turn when the government decided to use force to disperse the protesters instead of engaging them in talks which it ultimately had to the next day. The scenes in Islamabad’s Red Zone on Wednesday were worrisome. The police unleashed tear gas and batons on the men and women gathered on Constitution Avenue, leaving scores injured. This display of state power against hapless citizens should have been avoided.
The sad part is that such force against demonstrators has become a routine in Pakistan. Governments habitually order the police to rough up citizens and arrest them for exercising their constitutional right to protest. No one was a greater proponent of allowing people to protest than the prime minister himself. While in opposition, he would say repeatedly — and especially during his dharna in Islamabad — that citizens must use this right to express their disenchantment with a government.
On numerous occasions, he had warned the police not to stop the citizens from protesting and even said that if the police did try to apprehend protesters, they should not be deterred. For his government to use the police against peaceful citizens in such a harsh manner is indeed ironic. The excessive use of tear gas and the ensuing violence were a reminder that regardless of who is in power, the state continues to behave in a colonial manner.
This is not confined to the federal government. For instance, in Sindh, the government routinely uses water cannons, tear gas, and rubber bullets to break up demonstrations. The people making these decisions have little idea that such brutal use of state power is normally the last resort. If the demonstrators are peaceful, there is no justification for using force. The federal ministers who negotiated with the protesting employees in Islamabad have grudgingly acknowledged that state violence should not have happened. However, unless such procedures are reviewed and revised, governments will continue to unleash such force against citizens without much hesitation.




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