Stop the Machinery of Death

Published: November 17, 2012
The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore

The writer is a lawyer and partner at Ijaz and Ijaz Co in Lahore [email protected]

“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.

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Reader Comments (21)

  • A Shahid
    Nov 17, 2012 - 10:07PM

    Yes, stop the extra-judicial killings except in case of deadly drones which is a symbol of Pakistani ‘liberals’ in action and hence must be increased and perpetuated. What an irony!!!


  • sabi
    Nov 17, 2012 - 10:14PM

    Punishment for crime varies from nation to nation ,from society to society.It depends on the rate of crime done.Lesser the rate of crime lesser is the degree of punishment and vice versa.
    Imprisonment in europe for certain crime might well be more horrifying for one commiting crime than in other parts of world.A pakistani society allready plagued with mercyless killers can not afford such debates so as capital punishment is good or bad.The point should be what is more precious in life.Life itself or freedom in life.In some socities life behind bars in is an end to life whereas in others, life is more precious a thing even behind bars.Capital punihment should be aimed at how a society views life as it should be.


  • Toticalling
    Nov 17, 2012 - 10:49PM

    I agree that capital punishment should be abolished. But when we discuss this subject, we must point out the pros and cons of this topic. According to roughly a dozen recent studies, the results show that executions do save lives. For each inmate put to death, the studies say, 3 to 18 murders are prevented.
    The studies, performed by economists in the past decade, compare the number of executions in different jurisdictions with homicide rates over time — while trying to eliminate the effects of crime rates, conviction rates and other factors — and say that murder rates tend to fall as executions rise. One influential study looked at 3,054 counties over two decades. “I personally am opposed to the death penalty,” said H. Naci Mocan, an economist at Louisiana State University and an author of a study finding that each execution saves five lives. “But my research shows that there is a deterrent effect.”
    You must point out that your opinion is based on the moral aspects of executions of criminals.


  • Riaz Khan
    Nov 17, 2012 - 10:53PM

    Drones kill terrorists!


  • railoo
    Nov 17, 2012 - 11:34PM

    Can someone tell these proclaimed liberals please that this country wasn’t bequeathed to them by their liberal forebears. In fact they may well have been just normal Pakistanis going about their daily lives like any other Pakistani till their wannabe progeny returned from some gora country and created a self-appointed clique of liberals without bearings.
    These guys romanticize the Pakistan of the 50s and 60s of the Eqbal Ahmeds and Ferozs and somehow wish to link with the era without realizing that the Progressives movement and other such platforms closed a long time back. Today they try and recreate the Leftist inklings in memory of the real liberal movements.
    What defines a Pakistani pseudo-liberal today? Islam bashing; military bashing; falsifying the underlying philosophy that led to the creation of Pakistan; making fun of the religion or its implied prudence; fighting for Ahmadiyat or other religions by belittling Islam; lack tolerance; and are exclusively elitist. They do not have political leftist leaning, they remain only socially liberal, which is okay as long as they wish to follow that style of life. Worse, they wish to impose their thinking on others. Heck, is that not how we define an extremist?
    Can we please put an end to these pretension of super morality, please. Spare this nation.


  • Parvez
    Nov 17, 2012 - 11:49PM

    This comes across as a nice text book argument presented well, as you always do.
    Let the death penalty be abolished but at the same time let the keepers of law and order perform their duties diligently so that the public are not forced, out of frustration, to wish for solutions that are ‘ extra ‘ judicial.


  • Syed Hasan Mustafa
    Nov 18, 2012 - 12:22AM

    “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.”
    Sir, could you refer execution of any terrorist by the “Death Machinery” in Pakistan?


  • kfjf
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:01AM

    No one is imposing anything on anybody…nor was there any Islam or military bashing or any of the other stuff that you mention. You basically decided to comment on an imaginary article written by an imaginary person.

    Try and offer a comment on THIS article. In THIS article, you were presented with one point of view on the death penalty. If you think that point of view is wrong, explain why.


  • gp65
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:26AM

    @Toticalling: The information you provided is fascinating. Would greatly appreciate if you could provide original sources.
    Thanks in advance.


  • Mirza
    Nov 18, 2012 - 3:13AM

    As usual a great Op Ed by SI and ET. All cruel, barbaric and unusual punishments must be abolished in this day and age. We cannot remedy a murder by murdering.


  • railoo
    Nov 18, 2012 - 11:19AM

    Don’t you smell refuse! Don’t you see elitist cause? It reeks of a constant moral overhang. God, it is awful, this overdose of morality. It is becoming suffocating. Let this country be a normal country, centrist, inclusive and tolerant.


  • gp65
    Nov 18, 2012 - 11:36AM

    @Mirza: Mirzaji, I agree with your overall conclusion but not the rationale. IF the person is a murderer truly (or a terrorist who has killed dozens of people) then death sentence is neither cruel nor unusual in my mind. The reason that I am against death sentence is that judges are human and fallible. Even today in US now with the latest forensic techniques people sentenced for life are being acquitted after spending 20-30 years in prison. But if a judicial error is discovered, a death sentence is irreversible. This and this alone is a reason that I am against the death penalty.


  • Toticalling
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:16PM

    @gp65: There are many studies on the subject. I can give you this link:
    I am personally against capital punishment.


  • sabi
    Nov 18, 2012 - 1:36PM

    “But if a judicial error is discovered, a death sentence is irreversible. This and this alone is a reason that I am against the death penalty”.
    That is the reason most murderers escape capital punishment.


  • Uzma
    Nov 18, 2012 - 3:46PM

    i wonder if the death penalty really is the worst punishment to hand down. a lifetime in prison sounds equally horrific to me


  • Nov 18, 2012 - 9:13PM

    “….That is the reason most murderers escape capital punishment.”

    Please, provide reference to substantiate your claim.


  • sabi
    Nov 19, 2012 - 2:30AM

    @Abid P Khan:
    .That is the reason most murderers escape capital punishment.”
    .There is a flaw in this statement of mine and I thank you for pointing out on that.I understand what you mean.There can be some possible explanation to this statement but again lot of ifs and buts and.that is not my way of life to prove my point at any cost. Looking farward to your reply.


  • Nov 19, 2012 - 3:22PM

    “…There is a flaw in this statement of mine and I thank you for pointing out on that.I understand what you mean.There can be some possible explanation to this statement…”

    First and foremost, though I availed the opportunity to point out an inaccuracy the formulation of your argument, my intention was to take up the lack of logic in what we generally say. Probably, on our part, laziness and reliance on cliches and generalisations are found as a very convenient way out.
    Poor educational system, can very well take part of the blame. There are some voices in the wilderness of the likes of Hoodbhoy who stress on rational thinking. But myths are too dear to us to be weaned away from.
    If one is not sure of something one can indicate that by qualifying what has been said earlier with an additional statement.
    Hopefully, it was not too long winded.


  • omerulz
    Nov 20, 2012 - 12:17PM

    ‘Shaheed Bhagat Singh’

    He was never a shaheed….you may call him a martyr. I hope you know the difference. I hope…


  • Sultan
    Nov 20, 2012 - 10:03PM


    Today, your baby teeth party leader called Imran a positive force in politics, decried the Drones as completely illegal and railed against the US policies–see the link from your very own paper below. Wonder what you will write about that?

    And please don’t be a coward and censor this comment.


  • Sultan
    Nov 21, 2012 - 1:20AM


    Thank you Suroop. And now, please print the three other comments that got stuck in your sift!


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