write2kill.in | Select writings of Subir Ghosh
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The death penalty needs to go

Medieval solution: Five men are publicly hanged in Mashhad, Iran, in August 2007. The country has been in the limelight for the death penalty awarded to a woman convicted of adultery and involvement in her husband’s murder. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, has been sentenced to death by stoning. Photo: AP Photo/Halabisaz

The debate over the death penalty resurfaces in India every time a judgment on a murder is delivered. There is however very little to the debate, and it is more about mass hysteria with people all around screaming for blood. It is as if this is the only form of salvation. All voices and reasoning against the death penalty is drowned in this shrill, rabid cries for blood.

There is, indeed, very little debate over the issue in India. It is not debated hotly in Parliament by representatives most of who come from an electorate which keeps baying for a hanging. Revenge in the birthplace of Gandhi and Buddha is seen as the only form of justice. Editorials in newspapers often try to take a balanced position, but their reportage is skewed. All tacitly endorse and encourage the death penalty. It is meaningless to talk about television in this context — their kangaroo court trials are legion. Grimacing anchors and hyperventilating talk show hosts don't allow for any sane or civilised debates.

Today, October 10, is the World Day Against Death Penalty. It is something most people would not know of, for this is not promoted by greetings card manufacturers. No one wishes another person "Happy Day Against Death Penalty." There are no thought-provoking editorials in newspapers on the day. Neither does one get to see those now-infamous advertorials disguised as news, on the subject. There is, after all, no debate on this subject.

More than two-thirds of the countries in the world have now abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In all, 95 have abolished it for all crimes, nine had for ordinary crimes, and 35 in practice. The total number of abolitionist countries in law or practice stands at 139. Only 58 countries have retained it, India being one of them. India is in elite company here — Afghanistan, China, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, among others. In 2009, the number of people executed around the world was 2001, according to Amnesty International. This tally excludes China. Estimates there vary anything between 1,000 and 10,000. You can choose your number depending on how much anti-China you are in principle.

There are international standards and treaties. The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1989, is of worldwide scope. It provides for the total abolition of the death penalty but allows states parties to retain the death penalty in time of war if they make a reservation to that effect at the time of ratifying or acceding to the Protocol. Any state which is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can become a party to the Protocol. India is not a party to this Protocol.

The United Nations General Assembly adopted resolution on December 18, 2007, calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. The resolution was adopted by an overwhelming majority of 104 UN member states in favour, 54 countries against and 29 abstentions. India, needless to say, voted against it.

The death penalty is a manifestation of a culture of violence, and not a solution. There are innumerable myths surrounding the death penalty debate. Myths that perpetuate the notion that the death penalty is a must for a safe society.

KILLIING BY THE STATE: Hundreds of protesters hold a vigil outside Alipore Central Jail, Kolkata, where Dhananjoy Chatterjee was hanged on August 14, 2004. There are alternative punishments to the death penalty which do not involve the premeditated and coldblooded killing of a human being by the state in the name of justice. Photograph: AP Photo/Bikas Das

Let's look at some of those, very briefly.

  1. The death penalty deters violent crime and makes society safer.
    This is the most often quoted argument by death shriekers. The fact is evidence proves it to the contrary. In 2004 in the US, the average murder rate for states that used the death penalty was 5.71 per 100,000 of the population as against 4.02 per 100,000 in states that did not use it. In 2003 in Canada, 27 years after the country abolished the death penalty the murder rate had fallen by 44 per cent since 1975, when capital punishment was still enforced. The 2009 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that the South (in the US) had the highest murder rate. The South accounts for over 80 per cent of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1 per cent of all executions, again had the lowest murder rate. Numbers don't work out for the death seekers.
  2. Individuals are less likely to commit violent crimes, including murder, if they know they will face punishment by execution.
    This is a puerile argument that assumes that criminals study and anticipate the consequences of getting caught, and decide that a long term of imprisonment is acceptable, whereas execution is not. It disregards the fact that most violent crimes happen at the spur of the moment.
  3. The threat of execution is an effective strategy in preventing terrorism.
    During times when suicide bombings are in vogue, this contention comes across as a joke. Those who take up the terrorist way of communicating ideas, don't care a fig about their own safety. Those who carry out such operations, work on assumption that death is a certainty. The 9/11 terrorists killed themselves too, if one remembers correctly. The Mumbai attackers inflicted maximum damage, till they were mowed down, or blown up. The killers of Indira Gandhi knew there would be no ways of escape, but that did not deter them. The murderer of Rajiv Gandhi, in any case, blew herself up too.

Some brief Q&As (from an Amnesty International document):

In opposing the death penalty, isn't Amnesty showing disrespect for victims of violent crime and their relatives?
In opposing the death penalty, Amnesty International in no way seeks to minimize or condone the crimes for which those sentenced to death were convicted. If it were, then a majority of countries are currently apologists for violent crime, clearly a nonsensical suggestion. As an organization deeply concerned with the victims of human rights abuses, Amnesty International does not seek to belittle the suffering of the families of murder victims, for whom it has the greatest sympathy. However, the finality and cruelty inherent in the death penalty render it incompatible with norms of modern-day, civilized behaviour. It is an inappropriate and unacceptable response to violent crime.

But surely there are times when the state has no choice but to take someone's life?
Self-defence may be used to justify in some cases the taking of life by state officials, for example when a country is at war (international or civil) or when law enforcement officials must act immediately to save their own lives or those of others. Even in such situations the use of lethal force is surrounded by internationally accepted legal safeguards to inhibit abuse. This use of force is aimed at countering the immediate damage resulting from force used by others. However the death penalty is not an act of self-defence against an immediate threat to life. It is the premeditated killing of a prisoner who could therefore be dealt with equally well by less harsh means.

Isn't it necessary to execute certain prisoners in order to prevent them from repeating their crimes?
The death penalty as a method of preventing prisoners from re-offending is a blunt tool. By its very nature, the death penalty can only be carried out against a prisoner who is already imprisoned and therefore removed from society. Since that prisoner can no longer commit acts of violence against society, the death penalty is not needed as a method of protection. Unlike imprisonment, the death penalty entails the risk of judicial errors which can never be corrected. There will always be a risk that some prisoners who are innocent will be executed. The death penalty will not prevent them from repeating a crime which they did not commit in the first place.

Surely a person who commits an horrendous crime or who kills another individual deserves to die?
An execution cannot be used to condemn killing. Such an act by the state is the mirror image of the criminal's willingness to use physical violence against a victim. Additionally, all criminal justice systems are vulnerable to discrimination and error. No system is or could conceivably be capable of deciding fairly, consistently and infallibly who should live and who should die. Expediency, discretionary decisions and prevailing public opinion may influence the proceedings from the initial arrest to the last-minute decision on clemency. Central to human rights is that they are inalienable — they are accorded equally to every individual regardless of their status, ethnicity, religion or origin. They may not be taken away from anyone regardless of the crimes a person has committed. Human rights apply to the worst of us as well as to the best of us, which is why they are there to protect all of us. They save us from ourselves.

How can states abolish the death penalty when the majority of public opinion is in favour of it?
The reasons for a seemingly strong public support for the death penalty can be complex and lacking in factual foundation. If the public were fully informed of the reality of the death penalty and how it is applied, many people might be more willing to accept abolition. Opinion polls which often seem to indicate overwhelming support for the death penalty tend to simplify the complexities of public opinion and the extent to which it is based on an accurate understanding of the crime situation in the country, its causes and the means available for combating it. Public support for the death penalty is most often based on the erroneous belief that it is an effective measure against crime. What the public overwhelmingly want is truly effective measures to reduce criminality. If politicians advocate the death penalty as an anti-crime measure, the public will request it in the belief that it will address the problem. It is the responsibility of governments to address criminality effectively and without resorting to abusing human rights via the death penalty.

India has not seen an execution since 2004. But there are a number of people on the death row. The total number of prisoners in Indian jails who have been awarded the death sentence stands at 345 (till December 31, 2008). It is time India took a call, and abolished the primeval practice.

The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights. It has no place in a civilised society. And it is time for India to act civilised as a collective.

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