“Extrajudicial” killing is wrong, everyone knows that. The prefix “Extra” implies that there is a “judicial” killing and that somehow is the justified killing. A man has been executed in Pakistan after a gap of four years. Many would respond with a shrug, after all in a country where several are killed daily without any reason, this is a minor issue, perhaps a non-issue. Here was a man against whom the commission of murder was proved and that is all there is to it. He was not a martyr in any great cause, a common murder on whom justice was administered. That is true, unfortunately life in Pakistan has become too short and deaths too common to fret about every one of them. However, there is an important issue of principle involved; should the bureaucracy of the state have the power to kill a citizen, who is at their mercy, in captivity? In my opinion, it shouldn’t.
“Machinery of death” was the phrase used by US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun (1970-94) to describe the process of capital punishment. The arguments for and against the death penalty are too many to be summarised in this piece and are in any case well known. However, the arguments for death penalty in Pakistan can be roughly categorised in two broad categories. Firstly, it is an “Islamic” punishment (interestingly, all the executioners are Christian, the faithful although want to see it implemented, however are not very keen on implementing it themselves). The mandatory Islamic punishment is the “Hadd” punishment and as per my knowledge, no one in Pakistan has ever been sentenced to death by applying the “Hadd” and it is close to impossible to get a conviction given the stringent evidentiary requirements. All the capital punishment sentences are handed down in “Tazir” (the discretionary power of the state to make laws) and hence have nothing sacred about them. The “Hadd” punishment for theft in Pakistan is amputation of limbs; the only saving grace is that the “Hadd” is incredibly difficult to prove. In any event, the personal beliefs of individuals should not dictate the penal code.
The second argument is some vague notion of deterrence. Basically, threatening people with death so they comply with the law. There is some irony in this in our particular case. The most violent and visible group of our law breakers, namely the Taliban, TTP and clones are hardly the sort that would be nervous about this. In fact, their objective is to embrace death in the process of committing murder. Hence, provide little opportunity for the State to deter them with the provisions of the Penal Code. Those launching an attack against our society and killing innocent civilians should be dealt with decisive force if necessary; however, once captured, they are no longer combatants and are entitled to minimum human dignity. The general cause and effect between death penalty and crime rate have been dealt with exhaustively by many people for anyone who is interested. Albert Camus, on the deterrence of death penalty writes in Reflections on the Guillotine, “We must either kill publicly, or admit we do not feel authorised to kill”. He felt that society has evolved to a point where it cannot be done publicly and hence should not be done at all. Camus can be forgiven his ignorance because he died before the maniac regime of Ziaul Haq.
There is no justice in avenging murder by murder. On this false equivalence Camus writes: “But what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”
Shaheed Bhagat Singh is back in the news for the right reasons. The place where he was executed by hanging will hopefully now bear his name. One of the last recorded communications of Bhagat Singh is a letter to the Governor of Punjab written after the death sentence had been passed. In the letter, he writes chillingly: “We wanted to point out that according to the verdict of your court we had waged war and were therefore war prisoners. And we claim to be treated as such, i.e., we claim to be shot dead instead of to be hanged.” Bhagat Singh did not want to be executed like a common criminal by the bureaucracy of the state. He wanted to go down as the warrior that he was. He wanted to die in any anti-imperialist freedom struggle and not through capital punishment. Also to our eternal shame is that we let Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto be awarded capital punishment. There is a haunting, depressing piece of trivia here. The executioner in Bhutto’s hanging was Tara Masih, who was apparently the son of Bhagat Singh’s executioner. If true, this does symbolise the continuity of despair and destruction that capital punishment has and continues to wreak upon us.
That is all well and good for everyday cases, but what about the tough one? Anders Behring Breivik, the demented man who killed 77 people last year, has been sentenced to 21 years in prison, with a vulgarly luxurious suite. What about Osama bin Laden (had he been captured)? What about Mumtaz Qadri? Norway did not let Breivik win. Principles of human dignity should not be abandoned for Breiviks and Qadris, which is what they want. Everything in me is revolted by the grotesque face of Qadri and the sickness he represents. Yet, for the principle to mean anything, it has to mean everything in tough, even painful cases. Mumtaz Qadri and his likes should never see the outside of a prison building. Earlier this week, a court in Chitral sentenced a man to death for committing blasphemy. This is what happens when the “machinery of death” becomes every day. For every Mumtaz Qadri — there are many like the guy in Chitral — there may even be a Zulfikar Ali Bhutto or Bhagat Singh. It is just too big a gamble. It is simply not worth it.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 18th, 2012.