Shahzaid Akber / EPA

After school attack, Pakistan brings back death penalty

Pakistan's PM responds to pressure to get tougher on armed Taliban rebels by lifting moratorium on executions

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a moratorium on the death penalty Wednesday, a day after Taliban gunmen attacked a school, killing 148 people, nearly all of them children, in one of the deadliest incidents in the country's history.

Tuesday morning's bloodshed shocked the nation and put pressure on the government to do more to end the insurgency led by Pakistani Taliban, or Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). On Wednesday, Mubasher Lucman, a prominent host on the ARY news channel, tweeted, "Enough time already. Tell Air Chief to initiate carpet bombing."

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif called a multi-party conference in Peshawar on Wednesday to discuss the state response to the attack. Also on Wednesday, Pakistan Army Chief Raheel Sharif was in the Afghan capital Kabul to hold top-level security talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and the commander of the NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan.

A moratorium on the death penalty was imposed in 2008, and only one execution has taken place since then. A ministerial committee decided on Wednesday to restore the death penalty, and Sharif approved the decision, a government spokesman said.

There are believed to be more than 8,000 prisoners on death row in Pakistan, about 10 percent of them convicted of offenses labeled "terrorism," according to the legal aid group Justice Project Pakistan. Terrorism has a very broad definition under Pakistani law, and about 17,000 such cases are pending in special courts. 

Justice Project Pakistan released a report on Wednesday saying that those convicted of terrorism were often tortured into giving confessions or denied lawyers. Recent crackdowns have not stopped militant attacks, the group said in a report released on Wednesday. 

"Swathes of defendants whose crimes bear no relation to terrorism have been sentenced to death following extremely unfair trials — whilst terrorist attacks continue unabated," the report said. 

Tuesday's massacre at the military-run Army Public School and College in the city of Peshawar, located in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, began when seven gunmen, explosives strapped to their bodies, scaled a back wall using a ladder to enter the school on Tuesday morning. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

Once inside, they headed to the main auditorium, where students had gathered for an event, military spokesman Maj. Gen. Asim Bajwa told reporters on Wednesday. The gunmen started shooting from the stage, killing students as they tried to flee. The military recovered about 100 bodies from the auditorium alone, Bajwa said. "This is not a human act," he added. "This is a national tragedy."

The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, with the group's spokesman Muhammad Khorasani saying it was revenge for a military offensive, which began in June, against its safe havens along the border with Afghanistan.

"We selected the army's school for the attack because the government is targeting our families and females," he said Tuesday. "We want them to feel the pain."

The government declared a three-day mourning period, starting Wednesday. Some of the critically wounded adults — members of the school staff — died overnight, and authorities raised the overall death toll to 148. The number of students killed remained at 132. Another 121 students and three staff members were wounded in the assault.

Meanwhile, funerals were being held Wednesday across Peshawar, as families prepare to bury their children and the nine staff who were killed in the attack.

"They finished in minutes what I had lived my whole life for, my son," said laborer Akhtar Hussain, tears streaming down his face as he buried his 14-year-old, Fahad on Wednesday. He said he had worked for years in Dubai to earn a livelihood for his children.

"That innocent one is now gone in the grave, and I can't wait to join him, I can't live anymore," he wailed, banging his fists against his head.

Several news outlets reported on Wednesday that two blasts were heard near a girl's college in Dera Ismail Khan, which is also located in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province. No further details were immediately available. 

Al Jazeera and wire services 

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