Abolish the death penalty

No civilised nation should allow the state to commit the same act as the criminals.

Dr Farzana Bari July 10, 2013
The writer is director of the Department of Gender Studies at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad

The decision of the government not to extend moratorium on the death penalty has given rise to a public debate on the rationale behind taking the life of those who commit heinous crimes against humanity. There is clearly a divide on the issue. The controversy on death penalty is essentially surrounded by three standpoints.

There are people who take a principle - based stand on the issue. They believe that the death penalty is the most barbaric sentence. No civilised nation should allow the state to commit the same act as the criminals. The probability of the miscarriage of justice is always there in criminal justice system administered by human beings. In a society like ours, where the criminal justice system is riddled with inefficiency and corruption, prosecution and investigation are often influenced by the rich and powerful and governments consistently fail to provide fundamental rights to work, decent living and dignity to people. The state is directly responsible for creating the social conditions that breed crime and chaos.  What right does the state then have to condemn people to death?

The other standpoint uses religious argument to favour capital punishment as a part of the Islamic system of punishment — eye for an eye and life for a life. In my view, this is an argument out of its historical context. Also, it completely negates the spirit of Islam which is based upon social justice. The religious lobby ignores the fact that these punishments were prescribed at the time when there was no institutional system and infrastructure of jails where people could be locked up for their crimes. Also they conveniently ignore Islamic history, where these punishments were suspended in the wake of the state’s failure to fulfil its obligations towards its citizens. The example of Hazrat Umar Farooq (RA), who suspended Islamic punishment during famine applies here.

The third standpoint uses the argument of deterrence and the political security situation of the country. Criminals, mafias, terrorists outfits, and suicide bombers are killing and kidnapping people, while enjoying impunity. It is contended that these criminals must be hung to prevent such crimes in the future.

My contention is that this argument is based on a myth. Death penalty given to individuals does not curb terrorism, extremism and sectarian violence. It is naive to assume that resumption of death penalty will bring peace and security to the country instead of addressing the root causes of crimes. There is a mix of evidence on the correlation between the death penalty and the rate of crime in a society. Many countries in the world, such as Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland do not practise capital punishment but have low crime rates. However, on the other hand, four out of the top 10 lowest crime rate countries in the world — Japan, Bahrain, Hong Kong and Singapore — have retained death punishment. Therefore, it can be inferred that capital punishment is not a factor in crime prevention. It is actually the economic and social development of a society that is the real deterrence to crime rate.

The increasing criminalisation and brutalisation of our society is the result of the misplaced state policies, failure of governance and the breakdown of rule of law. We cannot remove these structural causes of criminality, militancy, extremism and brutality by executing individuals.

The core element in the pro-capital punishment argument is that people who commit crimes cannot be reformed. This standpoint is derived from the philosophical position that human beings are by nature evil, cruel and deceitful. Therefore, criminals should be eliminated from society.

I strongly believe that if the state is serious about preventing crimes in society, the best deterrence is through social and economic development, establishment of rule of law, equality and social justice. Let us not brutalise our society further by giving people death penalties.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2013.

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