By Kanika Rangray
Described in the most basic terms, death penalty is the killing of a convict who deserves it as per the law. Also called capital punishment, the death penalty has been a prominent feature in history. It is practiced by most societies as a punishment for not just criminals, but also political and religious dissidents.
Historical records place the death penalty as part of the justice system. In ancient history, capital punishment included torture and most executions were public. But over the time, the tools to carry out death penalty have changed in order to rescue the culprit from enduring any torture on “humanitarian” grounds.
Death penalty was carried out in several gruesome ways in history which included being crushed under an elephant, fed upon by animals, being sawed in half, and even being boiled, burnt or flayed alive.
However, the world has moved on to “less painful” and more “humane” methods of executions such as the lethal injection, the electric chair and the gas chamber. But do these “humane” methods spell justice for the victims of the criminals committing heinous acts?
The humanitarian question:
During the 20th century, which witnessed violence and bloodshed in extreme forms, various authoritarian states used the death penalty as a means of political oppression. This led to more aggressive efforts by civil rights organisations to emphasise the issue of human rights and appeal for the abolishment of death penalty as a punishment in any circumstances.
It is from this point on that a trend pushing the abolishment of death penalty started with vigour and many countries abolished capital punishment in law and in practice. However, some countries regained the practice, and some abolished death penalty only partially, denoting it as a punishment to be given only in the “rarest of rare cases” or only in some particular criminal acts.
More than half the countries in the world retain death penalty in one form or the other; so, the United Nations (UN) has put some strict guidelines regarding the use of death penalty, restricting it to the “most serious crimes.”
What encompasses of “a serious crime” is a very subjective and vague topic. A resolution of the Economic and Security Council in the 1980’s endorsed by the UN General Assembly in December 1984, and updated in 1999 says that “capital punishment may be imposed for only the most serious crimes, it being understood that their scope should not go beyond intentional crimes with lethal or other extremely grave consequences.”
But the controversy starts when countries start to decipher their own definition of a “serious crime”. Those who oppose the death penalty regard it as inhumane and criticise it for its irreversibility. There have been incidents where convicts who were given the death penalty later proved to be innocent.
According to Amnesty International, an organisation campaigning to protect human rights, 130 people sentenced to death in the USA have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. Where capital punishment is used, such mistakes cannot be put right.
Advocates of capital punishment claim that death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime. They claim that the fear of the hanging sabre of the death penalty ensures that the convicted do not step out of the norms of the law again; and it is just a penalty for atrocious crimes—who and on what grounds decides the definition.
Abolishing death penalty—fruitful or not?
Criminologists claim of no concrete evidence to show that a death penalty deters crime. Rather, the declining murder rate of North Carolina after executions were stopped in the state might justify the abolishment of capital punishment.
In India, the government and the law commission are at loggerheads on the issue of abolishing death penalty. Whereas the government wants to retain capital punishment, the law commission seeks to abolish it.
The Law Commission of India submitted a report to the Ministry of Law and Justice on 31st August, 2015 saying that the administration of death penalty in India is fallible, vulnerable to misapplication, and disproportionately used against socially and economically marginalised people.
“The death penalty therefore remains an irreversible punishment in an imperfect, fragile and fallible system,” said the report. The Commission recommended that capital punishment be abolished for all crimes except “terrorism related offenses and waging war,” but also pointed out that “there is no evidence of a link between fighting insurgency, terror or violent crime, and the need for death penalty.”
Dr. Versha Vahini, Assistant Professor of Law, National Law School of India University, Bangalore, said there are two sides to the issue. On one hand, you could say that because the gruesome nature of the crime committee, the criminal should not be given the right to live; but on the other, the state cannot be compared with an individual. Capital punishment is nothing but state sponsored killing.
There are other arguments also, “if you can’t give life, then you can’t take life” and also it is not certain that death penalty can act as a deterrent to crime, she added. Dr. Vahini also told NewsGram that the death penalty should be carried out in a more humanitarian manner. “Death penalties should be given out within a specific time span. You cannot keep a person in any uncertainty regarding his life. That in itself is a very cruel act.”
With valid arguments from both sides, the question arises: Is India ready for the abolishment of death penalty or should it be retained for the “rarest of rare crimes”?