Mumtaz Qadri, the assassin of Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, was executed on February 29 at Adiala Jail in Rawalpindi, where he had been imprisoned for the past several years. His execution ended a tragic and sordid chapter of Pakistan’s history – its fight against extremist vigilantes who believe they have the right to kill.

Qadri’s death came a little over five years after he assassinated Taseer outside a coffee shop in Islamabad. Investigating authorities said that Qadri had confessed to the murder – he said he had done it because the governor had wished to reform Pakistan’s strict blasphemy laws. At the time, authorities also insisted that his was the act of a lone assassin and that he had no connection with any militant organisation.

I oppose the death penalty. I hold my position because I do not believe that any government or instrument of State should partake in taking the life of any individual. Qadri’s execution has, for me, been the greatest test of my conviction in the necessity of banning the death penalty. Over the years, I have written about Qadri often – the last time was in November 2014, after Mohammad Asghar, a 70-year-old schizophrenic man was shot by a jail guard. Asghar was imprisoned on blasphemy charges and was targeted owing to Qadri’s incitement. The guard was a newbie, who had been convinced by Qadri to target others serving blasphemy terms. Mohammad Asghar had been a perfect and easy target. As I said in that piece, Qadri was a living embodiment of the distortion of faith that anoints not the Almighty but the individual, himself really, as the arbiter of who gets to live and die.

The State as killer

If this logic is reprehensible, and it is to me, then the question becomes whether it is ever valid. Instruments of the State are not individual. They are instead based on procedure and process, the product of which is justice. Qadri was a convicted killer, imprisoned not at the behest of arbitrary judgement but law and process. Using the instruments of State, however, to impose the death penalty on Qadri, or really anyone else, is something that undermines the legitimacy of these legal processes.

Since the taking of a life is irreversible, its imposition by the State tests the procedures and processes of justice that has imposed them. It also attaches a few shades of taint, the hesitation that ensues from considering that if killing is always wrong, then is it very right?

That, of course, is a technical argument. Another objection that irks me just as much is somewhat particular to Pakistan, or at least the contexts in which death, its detail and performance, has become a rhetorical instrument, the basis of an argument that eggs on others to sacrifice their lives if it accomplishes the killings of many others.

In the grim present, where Pakistan and Pakistanis have been subjected to thousands of such acts of death which produce thousands more deaths, there are some additional risks when death is attached to an individual such as Qadri. The cult of suicide bombings against the Pakistani state considers those killed in the path of killing others as “martyrs”. In this case, the fact that the State itself carried out the killing can attach even more significance to Qadri’s end – and anoint him even further in the eyes of those who have managed to attach divine significance to such acts.

Death as political theatre

Death penalties handed out by the State add to the tableau of righteous and unrighteous deaths underway in Pakistan. There are two sides to this. On one are those who believe in the State, in the law, in a process, and in a faith that does not permit the taking of lives by individuals who, like Qadri, imagine themselves as judges. On the other side are those who are beguiled by the blood-laden rhetoric that embraces vigilante justice and centralises death as an act of faith, even when it is unjustly imposed on others.

The iterations of this second kind have been seen time and again in Pakistan, and increasingly openly. Right-wing clerics in the country’s mosques talk time and again of categories of people, the killing of whom is permissible. It is an invocation to all who will listen to become Mumtaz Qadri. Sadly, there are millions who listen and among those millions are some thousands who silently sympathise and some hundreds who actively join the rosters of militant organisations. Death, the embrace of it, the imposition of it on innocent others, is central to this conversion.

The emergence of death as an act of political theatre in the war raging within Pakistan and increasingly in many parts of the world requires a rethinking of its imposition by the State. A greater moral contrast is required between those who believe in the arbitrary imposition of death, and the State that imposes it following the deployment of law, process and procedure. Such a contrast can be better achieved when the State imposes a complete moratorium on the death penalty and is able to say that it never kills as a retort to those who always kill, love killing, preach killing. A failure to do so risks the use of a State-imposed death penalty – like the hanging of Qadri – as one more act in the drama of his heroism of which he imagined himself a star, where he is the noble avenger, his killers the agents of faithlessness and corruption.

Simply put, the State imposition of the death penalty on a man like Qadri can be manipulated into yet another dimension of anti-State radical heroism and divert attention from the horror of his crime. Pakistan does not need any more of such men. An ironic but real act of preventing their creation may be to let them fester in prison, alone, anonymous and forgotten.

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