Islamabad, PAKISTAN – In the aftermath of the deadliest attack on a civilian target in its history, Pakistan has lifted a moratorium on executions in terrorism-related cases, the prime minister’s office has announced in a statement.

"The prime minister has approved abolishment of the moratorium on the execution of the death penalty in terrorism related cases," said the statement, released on Wednesday.

The announcement came as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a political parties conference to develop a consensus on Pakistan’s strategy against groups such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which launched a gun-and-bomb assault on a Peshawar school on Tuesday. The brazen attack left 162 people, including 132 children, dead.

There are currently approximately 800 people who were tried as "terrorists" on Pakistan’s death row, according to Justice Project Pakistan, a Lahore-based rights organisation.

Barring the execution of a soldier in November 2012 after a court martial, Pakistan has not executed a criminal since 2008, when then President Asif Ali Zardari introduced the unofficial moratorium.

Deathrow population

Courts have, however, continued to sentence convicts to the death since then, resulting in Pakistan having one of the largest death row populations in the world, with more than 8,526 people awaiting execution.

Twenty-seven crimes, including several terrorism-related offences, carry the death penalty in Pakistan.

Last year, Pakistani courts sentenced 226 people to death, the lowest number in over 10 years, but still the highest number of recorded death penalty convictions anywhere in the world, according to Amnesty International.

For comparison, the United States handed down 80 death sentences in 2013, while Iran sentenced more than 91 people to death, according to Amnesty.

Sharif has previously briefly lifted the moratorium in August 2013, but quickly put the measure back into place once it was clear that executions could result in the loss of preferential trade terms with the European Union.

Pakistan has since secured those trade terms – the General Scheme of Preference (GSP+) – but the deal will be up for review in Brussels in 2016. 

Rights organisations in Pakistan have also raised concerns in the past about the standards for fair trials in terrorism and other death penalty cases.

Several non-terrorism related offences in Pakistan are often tried under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), as doing so hastens the trial under Pakistani law.

Sarah Belal, executive director at JPP, said her organisation had noted “consistent abuse of procedural safeguards” in trials held under both civilian and military courts.

"The people of Pakistan think that when you’re executing terrorists, you'll be killing those who were responsible for the Peshawar attacks. What you will [largely] see will be regular criminals - people who are accused of murder, robbery, property disputes – being executed."

Follow Asad Hashim on Twitter: @AsadHashim

Source: Al Jazeera