The European Union (EU) Parliament President, Hans-Gert Poettering, has reportedly intervened on behalf of Mohammed Afzal — convicted for attacking Parliament in 2001 — with visiting President Abdul Kalam in Strasbourg last week. It is not only unprecedented for the EU Parliament to ask the head of State of a sovereign non-EU country to pardon a death row inmate, but also totally unwarranted. This continental clamour for clemency may have more to do with the EU’s wish to be seen as a standard-bearer for human rights than any particular concern for the health of the subcontinental judicial system.
The EU States that have abolished the death penalty under their national laws have been carrying out demarches of late, raising the issue in many countries, including the US, Malaysia, Japan, Sri Lanka, China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It’s doubtful though if the EU plea would influence India’s own debate on capital punishment to any great extent. Which is unfortunate as the UN recently called on States that retain the death penalty ‘to establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty’. International accords like the statute for the International Criminal Court reflect this and rule out capital punishment as an option. Although New Delhi has acknowledged this global consensus by ratifying human rights treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it has yet to take the plunge and do away with the death penalty. As a result, India is becoming isolated in its continued commitment to the death penalty.
There is little evidence to support the proponents’ justification that the death penalty has a ‘deterrent’ effect. If anything, the increasing homicide crime rate proves the futility of capital punishment. Moreover, there is no scientific basis for the claim that the perceived ‘deterrent’ effect is superior to life imprisonment. It is inarguable that criminals deserve to be punished, and that the severity of the punishment should be appropriate to their culpability. But any punishment must have its limits and any government that ignores these limits does so at the risk of using premeditated, violent homicide as an instrument of social policy.