ISLAMABAD, Pakistan (AP) – Pakistan Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani called Saturday for his country’s thousands of death sentences to be commuted to life in prison as part of a birthday tribute to slain leader Benazir Bhutto.
Though Gilani does not have the authority to directly commute the sentences, he said he would forward a recommendation to empty death row to President Pervez Musharraf, who is expected to approve it.
The government also decided to rename Islamabad International Airport after Bhutto, Gilani said.
The mass commutation, which would not prevent future death sentences from being handed down, would be a major victory for human rights activists.
Earlier this week, New York-based Human Rights Watch said about 7,000 people, nearly one quarter of all prisoners in Pakistan, are awaiting execution on the country’s death row, among the world’s largest. In 2007, 309 prisoners were sentenced to death and 134 were hanged, the group said.
Gilani said he wanted to stop the executions as a tribute to Bhutto, the leader of his Pakistan People’s Party who was slain in a bombing and shooting attack outside an election rally in December. Bhutto’s party went on to win February elections and take control of the new governing coalition.
Gilani’s recommendation came on what would have been Bhutto’s 55th birthday, which was marked in low-key ceremonies at her mausoleum in the town of Naudero. Parliament observed a minute of silence for her.
“We have asked the Ministry of the Interior to send a recommendation to the president to convert the death sentence of prisoners to life in prison,” Gilani said, adding that his action was a tribute to Bhutto.
Mahmoodul Hassan, an official at Adyala Jail near Rawalpindi, where Gilani was repeatedly imprisoned throughout his political career, said the death row prisoners rejoiced after hearing the prime minister’s speech on television.
“They are happy, and they are thanking Benazir Bhutto, they are praising the government and the prime minister,” he said.
Gilani also recommended that most prisoners, except those guilty of the worst crimes, have their sentences reduced by three months.
Akram Sheikh, a senior Pakistani lawyer, welcomed the move, saying a large number of prisoners would benefit from the amnesty. “The president is bound to give his approval on any such recommendation,” he said.
The government also decided to erect a monument at the spot where Bhutto was killed in the garrison town of Rawalpindi “so that people and the country remember that here was a leader who gave her life for the rights of the people of Pakistan,” Gilani said.
Meanwhile, Bhutto’s widower and successor as party leader, Asif Ali Zardari, said he would lobby for international support for the government’s request for a U.N. inquiry into her assassination.
Bhutto’s death shocked the world, fanning revulsion at rising militant violence as well as conspiracy theories that Pakistan’s powerful spy agencies were involved. The previous government blamed Baitullah Mehsud, a Pakistani militant commander.
Musharraf and the United States have opposed a U.N. investigation.
But Bhutto’s party said the world body should probe the killing given Mehsud’s alleged links to al-Qaeda and because of the huge political controversy surrounding the case.
Meanwhile, dozens of somber supporters gathered at her grave near her hometown of Naudero to offer prayers. Some carried large portraits of Bhutto and demanded the arrest of her killers. Zardari laid flowers at her grave and recited verses from the Quran.
Speaking in Parliament, Gilani urged lawmakers to help in the fight against terrorism that “deprives us of our leaders.” “We will make Pakistan a safe haven for humanity and not for terrorists,” Gilani said. “We will make this country a cradle of peace.”