Two Pakistanis were executed on Friday night in Faisalabad District Jail, the first penal executions since 2008. The executions were the immediate result of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's decision to remove the moratorium on the death penalty following the Peshawar school attack that killed 141 people, including 132 children.

Pakistanis are angry, and they have reason to be. Now that the initial shock from Tuesday’s bloody attack is subsiding, people justifiably want action, and they want the government to respond. The army launched a retaliatory ground assault in Khyber Agency, killing 39 people. Nawaz Sharif, for his part, removed a ban moratorium on the death penalty only for terrorism-accused convicts. As soon as the moratorium was removed, both the army and the government have been clearing the path to get those executions going as soon as possible.

Every passing hour, the number of prisoners cleared for execution rises, to a mostly positive public reaction. With an attack as horrific as the one in Peshawar, the government had to show the public that it was doing something. The usual round of condemnations and empty promises of justice that used to suffice before would not cut it this time. So the administration resoundingly answered to the public’s call for blood. (It just happens that the militants who conducted the Peshawar attack are already dead.)

Worrying development

But it is a profoundly worrying development for many reasons, not least because it fails to even tangentially address Pakistan’s battle against militancy.

Let’s look at the arguments for this policy that go beyond the immediate bloodlust of outraged citizens. The first is that Pakistan’s prisons are not secure enough to keep the convicts, and subsequently terrorism, at bay. They point to the prison breaks in Bannu and Dera Ismail Khan to demonstrate the fact that terrorists are a threat to the state as long as they continue to languish in prison, or perhaps more broadly, as long as they are alive.

In certain cases, they don’t even need to break out of prison to continue operations; C. Christine Fair argues that Zakiur Rehman Lakhvi, the alleged mastermind of the Mumbai attacks who was released on bail on Thursday (and then quickly remanded again) managed to conduct his operations relatively easily while in prison, and even managed to father a child in that time. The judicial system in Pakistan is also notoriously weak, and prosecution frequently falters in prosecuting notorious criminals and allows them to either be released on bail (like Lakhvi) or it drops the charges entirely. What else can the state do with known hardened criminals when the prison and justice system fails but to execute them, the argument goes.

Better prisons

The obvious conclusion from Pakistan’s systemic problems within the judiciary and its prisons is not the death penalty, but the need for better prison and judicial systems. Pakistan needs to secure its prisons; it needs an effective witness protection programme so that people are not afraid to testify; it needs better forensics and evidence collection units; it needs to provide better protection to its lawyers and judges so that they will not be scared to prosecute and convict.

All of these reforms are not just necessary to the immediate fight against militancy, but to ensure the rule of law in the long term as well. Right now, the reinstatement of the death penalty provides a convenient way out of not implementing any of those reforms. Rather than solve the many problems with how Pakistan’s courts and prisons deal with prisoners the argument seems to be that we wouldn’t have to worry about prisoners escaping if they are dead.

A fallacy

The other argument, regarding faulty legal systems is a fallacy: how can one affirm credible death sentences based on faulty prosecution? A death sentence is the logical conclusion of a water-tight case against a suspected militant. If the process is tarnished, how can we be sure that the result is deserved? Those calling for reinstating the death penalty would be making their case stronger if they invested their energy in judicial reform. But right now, the logic seems to be dangerously akin to that of the United States, where they hold detainees in Guantanamo Bay without charges because they just know, without any evidence, that this is their man.

The other, more generic argument is deterrence. The Pakistani government needs to send a message to militants that it is ruthless in the way it deals with them, and they should expect no mercy. Sure, if the militants weren’t already wearing suicide jackets. It is difficult to strike fear in the hearts of militants with punishments that they have already chosen for themselves. When militants embrace death rather than fear it, how can it remain a deterrent?

One doesn’t need to oppose the death penalty to see how this policy is simply being used like a band-aid over a bullet wound. Pakistan’s fight with militancy is going to be long, difficult, and yes, painful. No amount of executions can mitigate that.