Pakistan angry at school killings, moves to execute convicted terrorists

Pakistani Christians hold up candles to pay tribute to the victims killed in Tuesday's Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, as they participate in candle light vigil, Dec. 17, 2014 in Lahore, Pakistan.
Pakistani Christians hold up candles to pay tribute to the victims killed in Tuesday's Taliban attack on a military-run school in Peshawar, as they participate in candle light vigil, Dec. 17, 2014 in Lahore, Pakistan. AP

Pakistan’s government lifted a moratorium on executing convicted terrorists Wednesday and sought Afghanistan’s help to find the mastermind of Tuesday’s murderous attack on an army-run school in the northern city of Peshawar, as the death toll rose to 144.

There was a national outpouring of grief, shame and anger at the attack, in which 132 schoolchildren, many of them the sons of military officers, were killed.

Three more school staff members succumbed to their wounds at Peshawar’s Lady Reading Hospital, as staff there and at a military hospital in Rawalpindi fought to save the lives of dozens of critically injured victims, repeatedly issuing calls to the public to donate blood.

The leaders of Pakistan’s political parties set aside bitter rivalries at a conference in Peshawar, called by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to develop a consensus on legislation dealing with the trials and convictions of terrorists, an issue that successive governments have failed to settle since the Pakistani Taliban launched an insurgency in 2007.

Sharif set the agenda by announcing that he’d lifted a six-year moratorium on capital punishment, which a previous administration had put into place under the human rights terms of a preferential trade agreement with the European Union.

“The biggest issue right now is that of hardened terrorists who’ve been arrested . . . when they are not convicted, they return to their havens and carry out further acts of terror. Until and unless this issue is resolved, we cannot resolve the terrorism problem,” Sharif said.

There are about 8,000 convicts on death row in Pakistani prisons, one of the world’s largest such populations, including more than 3,000 terrorists.

Police, prosecutors and judges who handle terrorist cases have been threatened and murdered, making most reluctant to pursue such cases. And convictions have been difficult to secure.

Pakistan’s democratic constitution requires that defendants’ lawyers have access to prosecution evidence and witnesses, potentially exposing classified information.

Only the military’s security agencies have access to advanced forensic-evidence techniques – such as cross-referencing explosive residue from bombing scenes with databases of materials used in previous attacks – and they’ve been reluctant to expose that intelligence in court.

The security agencies clashed with the judiciary last year over their indefinite detention of terrorism suspects and refusal to produce them in court.

The detentions were legalized last June, when Pakistan’s government abandoned attempts to negotiate a peace settlement with the Pakistani Taliban after militants attacked an airport in the southern city of Karachi.

Pakistan’s ceremonial president, Mamnoon Hussain, responded immediately Wednesday by rejecting mercy petitions filed by eight convicted terrorists in 2012, and his office ordered the administrators of the prisons where they’re being held to carry out the executions, the Pakistani media reported.

Sharif’s populist measure came as Pakistanis reacted to the horrific Taliban attack Tuesday on an army-run school in Peshawar, as its victims were buried.

Funerals in absentia, a Muslim custom, were held for victims in cities around the country. Most schools and colleges were closed for the first of three days of national mourning declared by the government, while students and teachers at some gathered briefly to pray for the dead and wounded. Impromptu candlelight vigils sprang up in some cities as people struggled to come to terms with the carnage.

Pakistanis at home and abroad exchanged condolences over social media networks, many replacing profile pictures with black screens and talking about how they hadn’t been able to stop crying. Others posted slides that read, “The smallest coffins are the heaviest,” an obvious reference to the dead schoolchildren, while a minority called for the public execution, within 24 or 72 hours, of convicted terrorists.

National sentiment was summed up by the military’s chief spokesman, Gen. Asim Bajwa: “Today is one of the saddest days of our history. . . . All of us are ashamed that we have in our midst people whose instincts are worse than animals, who have killed innocent children on such a large scale,” he told journalists gathered near the school.

Amid the mourning, the army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, traveled to neighboring Afghanistan, brandishing intelligence that the school attack had been planned by Pakistani militants who’d relocated to eastern Afghanistan to escape the military’s campaign in the adjacent Pakistani tribal area of Khyber.

Sharif, who isn’t a relative of the Pakistani prime minister’s, met in Kabul with the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, and military and security officials to demand their help in capturing or killing the militants, including the Pakistani Taliban chief, Maulana Fazlullah, who’s notorious for ordering the October 2012 shooting of 2014 Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai.

The Pakistani chief of staff also met with U.S. Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commander of international security forces in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani military retaliated Tuesday against the terrorist factions involved in the school attack while it was happening, with U.S.-built F-16 air force jets carrying out 10 bombing sorties within an hour against militants in the remote Tirah Valley of the Khyber tribal area, on the border with the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, the military said.

Around the same time, a CIA drone attacked a pickup in Nangarhar’s Sherzad district on the border with Khyber, killing all 11 occupants, who included at least four Pakistani militants, Afghan officials said.

The Pakistani military said Wednesday that its warplanes had carried out 20 raids on militant positions in Khyber since the school attack.

The school tragedy prompted Pakistan’s longtime foe, India, to set aside tensions arising from recent border skirmishes. Prime Minister Narendra Modi led two minutes of silence for the Peshawar dead, observed early Wednesday in Parliament and at schools across the country.