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No terminal benefits

columns Updated: Feb 24, 2013 01:13 IST
Karan Thapar

Should the death penalty be abolished? My answer is a clear and unequivocal yes. I come to that conclusion both in terms of practical concerns as well as moral principles. Today, I want to share my thinking with you.

The first practical concern is: are there any grounds for claiming the death penalty is an effective deterrent? Janet Reno, a former US Attorney General, has said: “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.” And America is a country where over 1,000 have been executed in the last 40 years!

The Canadian experience is more convincing. According to Amnesty, the murder rate dropped 27% after the death penalty was abolished in 1976.

A second practical concern is that after the death penalty is implemented if you have reason to review the verdict of guilt it’s based upon it is too late. Even if this only occurs occasionally the execution of one innocent person is sufficient to seriously undermine the death penalty.

Now examine our specific experience in India. In July 2012, 14 retired Supreme Court and high court judges called on the President to commute 13 death sentences because, in their opinion, they were wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court either out of error or ignorance.

Then, in November 2012, the Supreme Court itself found that the rarest of rare standard was not applied uniformly and, therefore, the basis of the death penalty needed to be looked at again.

What does that tell us? Quite simply that judges themselves, both serving and retired, have serious concerns about the way the death penalty is awarded.

Suhas Chakma of the Asian Centre for Human Rights offers good reason for this. Relying on statistics compiled by the National Crimes Records Bureau, he’s found that over the last decade the death penalty has, on average, been awarded once every three days!

Even if the facts of its execution sharply differ this statistic is deeply worrying. It suggests — no, proves — that at the lower levels of our judiciary the death penalty is treated like a common everyday punishment.

However, the most telling argument against the death penalty arises out of moral principle. It, therefore, takes precedence over all the practical concerns we have so far discussed, no matter how serious.

Put simply, the moral issue is do we have a right to take human life? Given that we cannot confer life should we seek to terminate it?

I believe it’s on this simple but critical ground that 140 countries have either abolished the death penalty or given up using it.

They believe the judicial system must hand out justice, not play at being God. India is one of just 21 countries which seems to disagree.

Let me make one more point: abolishing the death penalty does not mean abolishing severe punishment for the rarest of the rare cases.

As Fali Nariman told me last week, life imprisonment for the full duration of a convict’s life, without any possibility of clemency or parole, is not just an adequate alternative but also a horrible punishment. Arguably, it’s more difficult to bear than swift and painless execution.

If Afzal Guru or Kasab had been thus punished they would have spent decades — possibly over 50 years in Kasab’s case — in jail. Do you really believe the death penalty is more stringent punishment? .

Views expressed by the author are personal