Pak mounts mercy pitch

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By OUR BUREAU in Chandigarh
  • Published 21.06.08

Islamabad/ Chandigarh, June 21: The new Pakistan government today urged President Pervez Musharraf to spare all the 7,000 prisoners on death row in the country, raising hopes for the release of alleged Indian spy Sarabjit Singh.

“The interior ministry will be asked to move a summary to the President to commute sentences of those on death row to life imprisonment,” Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani told the National Assembly, pitching the move as a tribute to Benazir Bhutto on her birthday.

Lawyers and other sources said Musharraf was likely to accept the request since he needed goodwill from the government, which once spoke of impeaching him.

The development could prompt Indian anti-death penalty lobbies to mount pressure on Delhi for a similar move. India has about 400 prisoners on death row.

Indian foreign ministry sources were cautious, saying it was Pakistan’s “internal matter” and that the matter had to be first “studied” thoroughly.

If Musharraf signs on the dotted line, Sarabjit, sentenced to hang on spying and terror charges, can be freed since he has spent 18 years in Pakistani jails. Most lifers are released after 14-15 years, former Pakistan human rights minister Ansar Burney said from Karachi.

Burney said he would move the Pakistan Supreme Court on Monday seeking immediate release of Sarabjit and Kirpal Singh, another Indian on death row on spying charges who has been in jail since 1991.

Sources said Gilani’s move could be part of a larger plan to signal to the world that his democratically elected government was more humane than Musharraf’s military regime. Domestic and international rights bodies, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been clamouring for the abolition of the death penalty in Pakistan.

Of the 31,400-odd convicts in Pakistan, over 7,000 — almost a fourth — are on death row. About 40 are women. Last year, 309 were sentenced to death and 134 hanged.

However, sources said, there could be a debate on those accused of heinous crimes of terror. One of them is Omar Sheikh, who was freed in exchange for the Indian Airlines hostages at Kandahar in 1999 before being convicted in 2002 of the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl.