Abol­ish death penalty

Pakistan Observer - - EDITORIALS & COMMENTS -

WHILE seek­ing abo­li­tion of death penalty in the world de­spite many coun­tries in­clud­ing In­dia con­tin­u­ing with this con­ven­tion, many hu­man rights ac­tivists have di­gressed from the de­bate on ma­te­rial is­sues lead­ing to de­lay in adop­tion of a com­mon con­ven­tion around the globe. It is par­tic­u­larly in ref­er­ence to ar­gu­ments for­warded in this con­text by many, who be­lieve that a le­gal process which can­not be re­versed should not be re­sorted to in the in­ter­est of a hu­man­is­tic ap­proach to all laws that gov­ern the so­ci­ety at large. But a se­ri­ous de­bate on the issue of so­cial and eco­nomic back­ground of the mur­der con­victs on death row around the world has not been there with ar­gu­ments which have found a fee­ble sup­port for the study and to abol­ish this prac­tice. Many hu­man­ists be­lieve that this amounts to tak­ing away the life of a per­son to meet ends of jus­tice while the acts of omis­sion and com­mis­sion of the con­victs have done the same thing to their vic­tims. This amounts to old age adage of ‘Eye for an Eye’ and so on sim­i­lar to the ‘Jun­gle Raj’ where ‘Tit for Tat’ are the rules. Sim­i­larly, it has been ob­served that op­po­si­tion to the death penalty is of­ten rooted in ar­gu­ments about its ir­re­versibil­ity, its es­sen­tial cru­elty, the pos­si­bil­ity of er­ror and the false sense of jus­tice in do­ing unto con­victed mur­der­ers what they had done to their vic­tims. In the In­dian con­text, pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the pris­on­ers’ eth­nic ori­gin or lin­guis­tic affin­ity is of­ten the ba­sis for pleas for clemency. Rarely is a more com­pelling rea­son in­voked: the pos­si­bil­ity of an of­fender’s eco­nomic back­ground, ed­u­ca­tional level, so­cial sta­tus or re­li­gious iden­tity work­ing against his in­ter­ests in le­gal pro­ceed­ings. A re­port re­leased on May 6, 2016 by the Na­tional Law Univer­sity, Delhi, on the work­ing of the death penalty in In­dia pro­vides val­i­da­tion and proof for some­thing that those fa­mil­iar with ad­min­is­tra­tion of jus­tice knew all along: that most of those sen­tenced to death in the coun­try are poor and un­e­d­u­cated; and many be­long to re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. In ad­di­tion, a re­veal­ing num­ber is that as many as 241 out of 385 death row con­victs were first-time of­fend­ers. Some may have been ju­ve­niles when they com­mit­ted cap­i­tal of­fences, but lacked the doc­u­men­ta­tion to prove their age. Against the salu­tary prin­ci­ple that those too young and too old be spared the death sen­tence, 54 death row con­victs whose age was avail­able were be­tween 18 and 21 at the time of the of­fence, and seven had crossed 60 years of age. An aver­age pris­oner await­ing ex­e­cu­tion is likely to be from a re­li­gious mi­nor­ity, a Dalit caste, a back­ward class, or from an eco­nom­i­cally vul­ner­a­ble fam­ily, and is un­likely to have fin­ished sec­ondary school­ing. Most of them hap­pen to be semi or to­tally il­lit­er­ate.

To quote one of the in­stances point­ing to­wards the ju­di­cial bias against such con­victs, the late Pres­i­dent, APJ Ab­dul Kalam, had once said a study by his of­fice into the back­ground of con­victs seek­ing mercy showed “a so­cial and eco­nomic bias”. The Pres­i­dent di­gressed from his pre­pared text dur­ing a public lec­ture to ask, “Why are so many poor peo­ple on death row?” The link be­tween so­cio-eco­nomic stand­ing and access to com­pe­tent le­gal coun­sel and ef­fec­tive rep­re­sen­ta­tion is quite strong. A ques­tion of con­cern that arises is whether these statis­tics on death row con­victs in­di­cate sys­temic bias or in­sti­tu­tion­alised prej­u­dice. The court, while com­mut­ing their sen­tence, in­voked the ‘doc­trine of di­min­ished re­spon­si­bil­ity’ and rea­soned that those gripped by mob frenzy were not fully aware of the sit­u­a­tion around them. While in­vok­ing any ground to com­mute a death sen­tence to life is wel­come, the im­pres­sion is in­escapable that such re­lief of­ten comes at a very late stage and only to those with the means to pur­sue le­gal reme­dies till the very end. It is a sad state of af­fairs that in cer­tain cases con­nected with ter­ror re­lated in­ci­dents de­scribed by the State as sedi­tion are in­cluded in the long list of of­fences that at­tract the death penalty, the con­victs be­long to re­li­gious mi­nor­ity par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims. In the last one decade or so, most of those hanged till death in the jails in In­dia be­longed to this re­li­gious mi­nor­ity and these ac­tions of the State have in­vited scathing crit­i­cism from the peo­ple at large. Law and so­ci­ety, there­fore, will be bet­ter served if the death penalty it­self is abol­ished. These statis­tics must re­in­force the larger mo­ral ar­gu­ment against the state tak­ing the life of a hu­man be­ing - any hu­man be­ing - as pun­ish­ment. — Kash­mir Times

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