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We May Have Abolished the Death Penalty Here Long Ago, Yet We Remain Involved in Its Continuing Use Worldwide

10/08/2015 16:58 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

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Earlier this month, 4 August, Pakistan hanged Shafqat Hussain, who was sentenced to death while he was still a child. Depressingly, this is not an isolated event. In June, Aftab Bahadur went to the gallows, even though he was just 15 when he was convicted. And in May, Faisal Mehmood was executed - even though the prosecutor in his case had argued against a death sentence as he was underage.

This might seem like an issue that is very distant from the human rights record of the British government. Yet it comes at a time when the Foreign Office has quietly scrapped its death penalty strategy; when the Home Office continues to support the efforts of Pakistan and other countries to send people to the hangman's noose; and while an unknown number of British citizens continue to languish in death row cells in Pakistan and around the world.

The government's widely-praised strategy for ending the death penalty had been in place since 2010, and the timing of the decision to scrap it is deeply unfortunate. Around the world - with a few happy exceptions, notably the US - the death penalty is seeing a resurgence: at the time of writing, Pakistan had executed over 200 people so far this year, while both Saudi Arabia - now at 110 - and Iran are set to exceed the substantial totals they reached in 2014. China hides its death penalty behind a wall of secrecy, but the numbers of victims each year are thought to be in the thousands. Egypt continues to sentence people to death by the hundreds in appalling mass-trials.

At the same time as dropping the strategy, the FCO admitted that it would be scrapping the term 'human rights countries of concern' - a label which had previously caused annoyance to countries such as China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

The depressing conclusion is that the government made these changes in order to have a quieter life when it came to human rights issues. Ministers were often questioned by MPs and others on how Saudi Arabia, for example, could be both a human rights country of concern - according to the FCO - and a priority market for British weapons - according to the Department for Business.

Similarly, a loosening of the government's obligations on the death penalty and human rights may make it easier - and less embarrassing - for the Home Office to continue with policies which contribute to the death penalty overseas. This is the result of an ill-thought-out counter-narcotics strategy, which sees millions of pounds of UK public money lavished on security forces in countries such as Pakistan - funding which then helps send non-violent, alleged drug offenders to the hangman's noose.

In short, a lack of safeguards on who we are prepared to fund, and on what conditions, means that UK cash is contributing to hangings overseas. The victims of those executions are, at worst, exploited drug mules. But all too often, due to the fondness of the police in Pakistan for extracting confessions through torture, they are likely innocent.

To add insult to injury, among those victims are a number of British citizens. It is hard to say how many - Pakistan's government has said five Britons are on death row for drugs offences, while the UK has said it is aware of none, and is disturbingly incurious about the discrepancy. Britain is now in the crazy position of having one department - the Home Office - helping sentence its citizens to death, while another - the FCO - tries with varying success to stop them from being executed. Joined-up government it is not.

These are knotty problems, but as so often a bit more openness would help us towards a solution. Yet, while the prime minister is fond of the cliché that "sunlight is the best disinfectant", his government appears to be heading in the opposite direction.

The Home Office is so tight-lipped about its counter-narcotics programmes that Reprieve is having to fight a court case to extract the most minimal information about what measures it takes on human rights abuses - possibly because they know that such measures are inadequate to the point of being non-existent. Meanwhile, a renewed push against Freedom of Information - a cause which all too often is favoured by the government of the day, whatever its stripe - is taking place.

But no amount of censorship can conceal the fundamental point: that while we may have abolished the death penalty in this country long ago, we remain involved in its continuing use around the world - and therefore responsible for doing what we can to bring it to an end. As a start, we need to see the Home Office open up a bit more - and the FCO think again about whether the best way to react to the abuses of our allies it to tip-toe around them.

Clare Algar is the executive director of Reprieve

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