In this Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2015 photo, family members of Shafqat Hussain, who was convicted and hanged for killing a boy, mourn his death in Muzaffarabad, Pakistani Kashmir. Pakistan quickly has become one of the world’s top executioners following a Taliban attack on a military school after years of not carrying out a death sentence, but instead of killing militants, it routinely executes common criminals, The Associated Press has found. (AP Photo/M.D. Mughal)
For years, Pakistan did not put prisoners to death. Then a Taliban attack butchered 150 people, most of them children, and the country resumed carrying out the death penalty and quickly turned into one of the world's most avid executioners.
But instead of killing militants, the campaign is largely executing common criminals, The Associated Press has found.
Only one in 10 of the 226 prisoners executed since December was convicted of a terror attack, according to human rights activists. Still, the executions continue in order to placate a public still angry over last year's Taliban assault on a military school in the city of Peshawar.
The Pakistani government refuses to discuss the executions, and most on the street still support them. Some, however, are beginning to question whether the death penalty truly works as a deterrent in a country where suicide bombings remain a common militant tactic.
"You cannot deter those militants who are committed to die for a cause," said analyst Hasan Askari Rizvi, a retired political science professor.
Pakistan under former President Pervez Musharraf halted executions in 2008, partly due to the pressure of human rights groups. The hiatus started after another terror attack shocked the nation — the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto amid a heated election campaign. The government blamed the Pakistani Taliban for that attack as well, though the militants never claimed responsibility for the assault and others questioned why elements of Pakistan's powerful intelligence agencies failed to prevent her killing.
At the time of the pause in 2008, Human Rights Watch said some 7,000 people were on Pakistan's death row and 36 had been put to death that year. The year before, authorities executed 134 people; they put to death 85 in 2006, 52 in 2005 and 21 in 2004. Officials discussed commuting the death sentences of those remaining to life in prison, but apparently never did.
After 2008, Pakistan's military executed only one soldier in 2012 after convicting him of murder. Civilian authorities largely didn't discuss resuming executions, even as the Pakistani Taliban and other insurgent groups continued their campaign of violence across the country, including suicide bombings and the 2012 shooting of future Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai.
The Dec. 16 attack changed everything. In Peshawar, Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school, killing 150 people, nearly all children attending class. Popular anger raged against the militants, many of whom have long ties to sections of Pakistani intelligence services.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif used his strongest language yet against the extremists, vowing there would be no discrimination between "good or bad Taliban" as he allowed those convicted of terror charges to be executed. He also pledged to "continue this war until even a single terrorist is not left on our soil,"
Days later, Pakistan carried out its first executions by hanging Mohammed Aqeel, convicted of attacking an army headquarters near Islamabad, and Arshad Mahmood, put to death for his role in a 2003 plot to kill Musharraf. Other executions followed. In all, at least 21 people have been executed in terror cases involving a plane hijacking, attacks on soldiers and other violence, according to data from the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
In March, Pakistan quietly lifted its execution ban entirely and hangings surged. Over all, Pakistan has executed at least 226 people, according to the commission, though an exact number is difficult to ascertain as authorities decline to discuss the death penalty in detail. Repeated requests for comment by the AP to the Pakistani Interior and Information ministries have gone unanswered.