Indian lawmakers hold up capital punishment as a symbol of their resolve to tackle crime. Don’t be taken in by their cynical ploy.
Divya Iyer · Apr 23, 2015 · 01:30 pm
“Mukesh Singh just made the case for death penalty stronger,” ran the headline of a news report on a BBC documentary on the 2012 Delhi gang-rape. The film India’s Daughter was banned by the Indian government, but people logged onto the internet anyway to see the rape-murder convict defending himself and blaming the victim for the sexual assault. His lack of remorse sparked widespread outrage in the country, with the mainstream and social media erupting with calls for Mukesh Singh to be hanged. Once again.
A similar demand for the death penalty had come from certain sections of society in the immediate aftermath of the gang-rape in December 2012. Although those calls were resisted by several rights organisations, feminist groups and scholars, the most definitive statement against the extreme measure of death penalty had come from the Justice Verma Committee, which noted that, “In our considered view…the seeking of death penalty would be a regressive step in the field of sentencing and reformation…[I]n the larger interests of society, and having regard to the current thinking in favor of abolition of the death penalty…we are not inclined to recommend the death penalty.”
The numbers speak for themselves – in 1945, when the United Nations was founded, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty, while today 140 states are abolitionist in law or practice.
Let’s be clear – advocating the abolition of capital punishment does not mean that crimes should go unpunished. The question is whether punishment by the state should descend into something akin to revenge or barbarity. The anger or hurt felt by the victims’ families is understandable. The public outrage against terrorism and the demand for improving women’s safety is also justified. But let us not be under any illusion that a death sentence will more successfully deter rape, murder or any other crime for that matter.
A worldwide trend
Executions kill the criminal, not the crime. There is no evidence that the threat of execution is more of a deterrent to crime than a prison sentence. This fact has been confirmed in multiple studies in many regions around the world, including by the United Nations. The Justice Verma Committee came to the same conclusion, noting that “there is considerable evidence that the deterrent effect of death penalty on serious crimes is actually a myth”.
The key to deterrence is the likelihood of detection, arrest and conviction for a crime. The conviction rate for rape in India was 27% at the end of 2013. Thousands of crimes against women go unreported, or do not lead to investigations and chargesheets, or are delayed in trial for years. When the swiftness and certainty of punishment is so low, its severity by itself has little preventive effect.
Lawmakers in India often find it convenient to hold up capital punishment as a symbol of their resolve to tackle crime, and choose to ignore more difficult and effective solutions like improving investigations, prosecutions and care for victims’ families. Unfortunately, the same trend was evident last year across the world – with governments using the death penalty in a misguided, often cynical, attempt to tackle crime and terrorism. Amnesty International’s latest annual report on the death penalty worldwide found that an alarming number of countries used the death penalty to tackle real or perceived threats to state security posed by terrorism, crime or internal instability in 2014.
In December 2014, in the wake of the Peshawar school terrorist attack that killed 149 people, mainly children, Pakistan lifted a six-year moratorium on executions. More than 50 people have been put to death since.
Executions for terrorism-related offences continued to be recorded in China, Iran and Iraq. Jordan started using the death penalty again, and Indonesia moved close to carrying out executions – both justifying their actions as responses to crime.
In a year when abhorrent summary executions by armed groups were branded on the global consciousness like never before, it is appalling that governments are themselves resorting to more executions in a knee-jerk reaction to terrorism.
The death penalty is little more than judicially sanctioned murder. Far from deterring crime, it can create more misery, perpetuating the cycle of violence and reprisal.
Amnesty International’s report reveals that last year, 112 people were exonerated in nine countries after they were sentenced to death – this is a significant number of innocent lives saved. We found that in majority of countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, the capital punishment was imposed after proceedings that did not meet international fair trial standards.
In several countries – including Afghanistan, China and Saudi Arabia – death sentences were based on “confessions” made under duress, and were awarded for non-lethal crimes, such as drug-related offences, corruption, committing adultery, “insulting the prophet of Islam”, and “witchcraft”.
Crime must be prevented and punished, but in full respect of human rights and dignity. Society has come a long way from the middle ages, when justice was meted out with floggings and public hangings. But a civilised society needs to tackle crime based on reasoned forms of punishment. As the French philosopher Michel Foucault observed, “It is the certainty of being punished and not the horrifying spectacle of public punishment that must discourage crime.”
Gratefully, not all is grim. There is some good news as well. Excluding China, at least 607 executions were recorded in 2014, down by almost 22% from 2013. Twenty-two countries were known to execute in 2014, the same number as the year before. This is a significant drop from 20 years ago, when Amnesty International recorded executions in 41 countries, and highlights the clear global trend of states moving away from the death penalty.
Those governments that continue to execute need to realise that they are on the wrong side of history. They need to join the vast majority of countries who have dropped the ultimate cruel punishment. Campaigning for an end to the death penalty remains an uphill task, but Amnesty International and many others are determined to make the world free of this extreme punishment. By this time next year, we hope that we will have more good news to report.
The author is Research Manager, Amnesty International India.
Source: http://scroll.in/article/719778/death-penalty-is-judicially-sanctioned-murder-it-doesnt-tackle-crime-or-terrorism [last accessed 28.05.2015]