After a five-year moratorium, Pakistan will resume the practice of capital punishment on civilian inmates, placing the lives of up to 8,000 prisoners who have exhausted all appeals in grave jeopardy. 

Since 2008, when President Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) signed an order to halt executions, not a single civilian has been sent to the gallows. The last Pakistani execution involved a soldier who was court-martialed in 2008. 

PPP officials could not illegalize capital punishment through legislation, so instead they simply suspended the practice, given that the president [Zardari] had the final say on such matters. PPP may have had a particularly compelling reason to ban the death penalty given that the party’s founder, former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq.

However, the newly elected prime minister of the country, Nawaz Sharif, of the Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N), rescinded the PPP order, following a campaign pledge to do so. Now, authorities are scheduled to hang four convicts, including two members of the outlawed Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) militant organization -- at the Sukkur jail and Karachi Central prison on Aug. 20, 21 and 22 under the auspices of the Anti-Terrorist Court (ATC).

Sukkur has not carried out an execution in 11 years. Nusrat Mangan, the inspector general of prisons in the Sindh province of Pakistan, said none of the four inmates had approached the courts asking for a review of their sentences.

But Sharif’s removal of the stay of executions has already triggered criticism from human rights activists, including Polly Truscott, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia-Pacific director, who said in a statement that resuming executions in Pakistan would be a “shocking and retrograde” step, putting thousands of people's lives at risk. 

Death row prisoners constitute more than 10 percent of the prison population in Pakistan, said a report by the British-based Foundation of Fundamental Rights. "For me it's not the number of people facing [the] death penalty," said Dr Farzana Bari, a Pakistani human rights activist. "I believe the state should not be allowed to take the life of its citizens. Criminals can be incarcerated in jails for life."

However, in a country awash with violent crimes and terrorism, the demand for the ultimate justice is widespread. Mushir Alam, the chief justice of the Sindh High Court, warned that the crime situation in the province will not improve until death row convicts are summarily executed. Mangan said that in Sindh alone there are more than 350 prisoners who could be hanged under the new policy.

“The reintroduction of death penalty is a symbol of [the Pakistani] government’s tough stance against terrorist activities, which have seriously affected the social and economic life in the country,” said an op-ed piece in Arab News. But the author added that Pakistan also needs to revamp and reform its entire judicial system. “Drastic measures are required to restore the credibility of Pakistan’s judicial system as it is often accused of being painfully slow, massively corrupt and highly prejudiced,” he wrote. “A trial based on just and transparent process can help to decide all cases on pure merit, which will ultimately restore faith in the system. This would help to eliminate the risk of an innocent person being convicted of capital punishment and also effectively curb heinous crimes in the society.”

Indeed, according to Pakistani penal law, a total of 27 crimes (including blasphemy) may lead to the application of the death penalty (in 1947, at the country’s founding, murder and treason were the only two capital offenses). Interestingly, if the PML-N fully carries out its program of executing all death row inmates, it will have to kill Mumtaz Qadri, the man who assassinated Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer for supporting an anti-blasphemy law. Qadri is a huge icon to many fundamentalist, conservative Muslims.

As of last year, at least 140 countries had abolished the death penalty. Prominent holdouts include the U.S., India, China and Iran.