Hang Death Penalty - The Human Angle
April 9, 2012
Chandigarh Sessions Court’s instruction to the SP of Patiala Central Jail to implement the scheduled execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana on 31 March has revived the debate on the death penalty in India. Rajoana was the back-up human bomb when Punjab CM Beant Singh was assassinated in 1995. Rajoana never appealed for mercy, but clemency petitions filed by the Punjab government and by Sikh groups who consider the unrepentant Rajoana a living martyr to the cause of the Sikh nation have led to a further postponement of the execution.
While some political groups bay for the blood of convicts they dislike (Afzal Guru and Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab), and others ask for clemency for those they support (Sri Lankan assassins of Rajiv Gandhi — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan), on 29 March the Supreme Court of India took notice of death row politics in the country and asked some uncomfortable questions as regards clemency petitions and procedures. This is of great significance as there are currently 18 clemency petitions with the President’s office and over 300 people are on death row in the country.
In India, the crimes of murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the nation, abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces and large scale narcotics trafficking are eligible for the death penalty. The SC which in 1983 instructed that the death penalty should be imposed only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases has recently recommended the death penalty for police officials who stage false encounter killings and for those who commit honor killings.
Is the death penalty a moral abomination or an effective deterrent of violent crime? Is it better for society to incarcerate a dangerous criminal forever, or is the ultimate punishment more justified for heinous crimes? How safe are death penalty convictions?
Providing a backdrop to the death penalty debate in India was Amnesty International’s latest report on the global use of the death penalty in 2011. The report recorded the positive trend that only 20 of the world’s 198 countries carried out an execution in 2011; 96 countries did away with it while 34 countries have been abolitionist in practice by observing official or unofficial moratoria. India has been abolitionist — the last execution took place in 2004.
From a distance, it appears that the world is slowly moving towards a more civilised system of criminal justice. In 1971 the UN General Assembly called for a restriction on the number of offences for which the death penalty could be imposed, with a view to abolishing it altogether. This will of the global community was reiterated in 1977 and again in 2010 in UN Resolutions with ever growing support from member nations. Today, no country can become a member of the Council of Europe or of the European Union unless they abandon the death penalty. Some African countries like Angola, Djibouti, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa have abolished capital punishment. Gabon is the latest to join their ranks.
From close, the picture is less attractive. India, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and China, did not support the UN resolutions and more than 60 per cent of the world’s population today lives in regimes where the death penalty is still legal — 18,750 people remain under sentence of death worldwide, and at least 676 people were executed in the year. These figures exclude the statistics for China which keeps executions secret, but is believed to execute thousands of people every year. A sharp rise in the use of the death penalty was noted specially in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who along with the US and China are the world’s top executioners.
Despite its wide spread use, can the death penalty ever be justified?
Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that moral Magna Carta which sets universal standards for the global civilisation and in whose formulation India played an important role, affirms: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The infliction of death as punishment is indeed a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It is in the spirit of retribution, not rehabilitation and militates against modern standards of justice.
From flaying alive to boiling in oil to the executioner’s axe, from the hangman’s noose to the lethal injection, the death penalty has seen many barbarous refinements, but has only inflicted pointless pain where a less severe punishment could have achieved the same purpose. As Victor Hugo pointed out, it is irrevocable, irreparable and indissoluble and hence has no place in human law. In Franz Kafka’s nameless Penal Colony the death machine kills the guard himself in the name of justice, in the same way that every death penalty kills our humanity and brutalises our society.The time has come to hang the death penalty, not humans.