I was determined to write something positive about Pakistan today. Quite typical of the dysfunction in the country, the ‘good news’ came from an unlikely corner. Since the coming into power of the Pakistan Peoples Party in 2008, there has been a moratorium on the carrying out of the death penalty. While the statute book says that capital punishment can be awarded for about 28 offences and hundreds of people still remain on death row, it is commendable that since November 2008, not a single person has been executed.
The rationales behind the death penalty were the concepts of retribution and deterrence. Retribution, or revenge, has been a part of human society ever since its inception and most religions even gave it moral and legal cover. However, as society progressed it became clear that revenge begets revenge, even if carried out by state actors. After all, as Mahatama Gandhi once said “an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”. Therefore, to break the cycle of violence (which was often perpetrated by private individuals), religions, as well as states, began to delink the carrying out of capital punishment from the concept of revenge.
Thereafter, capital punishment became the preserve of the state and primarily a tool for deterrence. The argument went that the severity of the death penalty prevented people from committing a particular crime. However, research, as well as common sense, has clearly shown that the existence of the death penalty does not make any significant impact on the rate of crime. As a matter of fact, the incidence of major crime in Pakistan has actually increased since 1861 when the Penal Code was enforced with only a few crimes punishable by death today, when over two dozen crimes carry the death penalty. Quite obviously, crime has deeper social and economic roots and cannot simply be rooted out due to the existence of capital punishment.
Most importantly, capital punishment is wrong, simply because it is irrevocable and carries a chance, however a small one, that an innocent person might be executed. With a judicial system that is susceptible to miscarriages of justice, defective police investigation methods, high incidence of corruption and social and cultural prejudices against the poor, minorities and women, the chances that a death sentence is awarded because of any one of these deficiencies is really high in Pakistan. In such circumstances, it is only sensible that no such executions, even sentences, are carried out.
Moves towards the abolition, or at least restriction of the death penalty, are not completely modern or Western concepts. In Japan, the death penalty was abolished from 818 to 1156 under the influence of Shintoism. In more modern times, Leopold II of Tuscany banned capital punishment in 1786 and so the modern movement began in which by now, over half of the world has abolished the death penalty and several only use it in exceptional circumstances, while a number of them, including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and the US still use it widely.
Ultimately, the opposition towards capital punishment deals with the dignity and worth of a human being. Are human beings so worthless that they can be executed, even if there is a reasonable chance that their conviction might be flawed? By taking someone’s life, can a crime really be prevented? Are people (victim’s family) actually ‘satisfied’ when they see someone else suffer the same fate their loved one did? All these questions, and more, must make us reflect on how we view ourselves and other humans.
Pakistan has finally made a break from the league of other failing states (and the US) and made a courageous step in having a moratorium on capital punishment. Limiting the death penalty and finally abolishing it is a sure sign of a civilised society. Even India, which we always compare ourselves with, declared that the death penalty should be reserved for the ‘rarest of rare cases’ and in the last 20 years, only two executions (in 1995 and in 2004) have taken place. In a country where the price on life is so low, maybe the government can lead the way in showing that people, even if criminals, are worthy of some respect.
Published In The Express Tribune, June 12th, 2012.
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