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Pakistan’s gallows await 3,000 convicted terrorists; first will hang ‘within days’

Pakistan’s government fast-tracked warrants of execution for convicted terrorists Thursday, moving swiftly on its promise to crack down on militants after a Taliban massacre of 132 schoolchildren Tuesday in the northern city of Peshawar.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had lifted a six-year moratorium on capital punishment Wednesday, vowing to eliminate terrorists in Pakistan irrespective of whether they targeted it or neighboring Afghanistan or India.

On Sharif’s orders Thursday, the country’s ceremonial president, Mamnoon Hussain, rejected 17 mercy petitions that convicted terrorists on death row had filed earlier. The army chief of staff, Gen. Raheel Sharif, who’s no relation to the prime minister, also signed six so-called “black warrants” for the execution of soldiers convicted of terrorism offenses by military courts.

Officials said those 23 terrorists would be executed within days, and they’re likely to be followed by dozens more hangings at prisons around the country.

The federal government and its four provincial counterparts worked overnight Wednesday and through Thursday to draw up lists of which prisoners would be sent to the gallows. Initial estimates have put the number of convicted terrorists awaiting execution at more than 3,000.

Pakistan’s chief justice, Nasirul Mulk, told lawyers gathered at the Peshawar high court Thursday that he’d convened a meeting of all the country’s high court judges to plan the rapid conclusion of appeals filed by terrorist convicts on death row.

Pakistani news reports Thursday varied in their estimates of the number of prisoners who’ll be put to death in a first wave of executions, but their anonymously sourced reports suggested that they’d number 60 to 80.

They’d include the perpetrators of many high-profile terrorist attacks, including the leader of an October 2009 attack on the army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi, in which 10 soldiers died.

Unconfirmed reports said those being lined up may also include Omar Saeed Sheikh, convicted of the 2002 murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in the southern city of Karachi.

The government acted as public grief at Tuesday’s school massacre turned into angry demands for decisive action to end a seven-year Taliban insurgency that’s claimed more than 60,000 lives.

The death toll from the Peshawar attack rose to 148 on Thursday, as four more people succumbed to their wounds at the city’s Lady Reading Hospital.

“There’s not a street in the city without a household in mourning,” local journalist Ghulam Dastageer told McClatchy.

Casting aside years of fear, hundreds of civil society activists gathered Thursday evening for a candlelight vigil outside Islamabad’s Red Mosque, the flash point that triggered the Taliban insurgency. After terrorizing the capital’s residents for months, some 300 armed militants and seminary students were killed in July 2007 in a special forces assault on the mosque.

The imam of the mosque, Mullah Abdul Aziz, has been a focus of public anger after he refused to criticize the perpetrators of Tuesday’s school attack.

His brother had led the militants in the 2007 standoff and died in the military assault that ended it. Aziz was captured while trying to escape beforehand, disguised as a burqa-clad woman.

On Thursday, Aziz sought to placate the hundreds of protesters outside the mosque by appearing at their vigil. Instead, he had to make a hurried exit as the crowd chanted that he should “be drowned in a pond,” an Urdu-language insult.

Also on Thursday, an Islamabad anti-terrorist court judge caused huge embarrassment to the government when he accepted the bail application of the suspected terrorist mastermind of the November 2008 attack on the Indian city of Mumbai. Zakiur Rahman Lakhvi has been charged with planning and remotely directing the three-day rampage, which killed 166 people.

The court’s ruling threatened to pour cold water over the prime minister’s vow not to discriminate between so-called “good and bad Taliban” in the crackdown.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, had set aside tensions with Pakistan over months of border skirmishes to telephone Sharif on Tuesday and express his condolences over the Peshawar attack. On Wednesday, he’d led India’s Parliament in observing two minutes of silence for the victims, while students at schools across the country prayed for their Pakistani counterparts.

India was thus stung by Thursday’s court ruling, but it reacted with diplomatic restraint: It called on the Pakistani government to appeal the decision.

The response from Islamabad was swift, as officials rearrested the former Lashkar-e-Taiba operations chief and government prosecutors lodged an appeal of the bail with the Islamabad high court.

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