Abolish death penalty
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