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Pakistani Court Commutes Death Sentence After 23 Years

The Supreme Court building in Islamabad.
The Supreme Court building in Islamabad.

LAHORE, Pakistan -- Pakistan’s top court on March 29 commuted the death sentence of a convict who had spent 23 years on death row, after determining he had committed the crime while still a minor, his defense lawyer said.

The Supreme Court's ruling was hailed by Justice Project Pakistan, a rights group that fought the years-long legal battle for Muhammad Anwar.

Anwar was arrested in 1993 after police accused him of participating in an attack that killed a villager. He was sentenced to death in 1998. He was 17 years old at the time of the attack, said the lawyer, Zainab Mahboob, expressing hope that Anwar will be released soon.

The court ruled the time spent in prison will be considered as served sentence, Mahboob added. She added that Anwar had suffered three heart attacks since 2013 while in prison.

Under Pakistani law, inmates are freed if they have already spent more than 14 years behind bars after being convicted and sentenced in a murder case.

Barrister Sarah Belal, executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, welcomed the development, saying “Pakistan has steadily been taking steps to ensure the fulfillment of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child."

Last year, another court had commuted the death sentence of Muhammad Iqbal, who spent over 20 years on death row for a crime committed as a minor. “This, however, begs the question why children are being sentenced to death anyway when all local and international laws expressly prohibit it," Bilal said.

Pakistan halted executions between 2008 and 2014 due to pressure from international human rights groups but lifted the moratorium following a Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in December 2014 that killed 150 people, nearly all of them children.

Since then, Pakistan has executed 515 inmates. More than 4,200 are still on death row at prisons in the country.