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Hanging on to a useless practice

india Updated: Jun 09, 2008 21:15 IST

Instead of being lured into a debate about which government would have done what with Mohammad Afzal, currently on death row for the 2001 Parliament attack, let’s stick to the real issue: capital punishment. Regardless of what Afzal’s idea of “quick release” is — and his choice as a Prime Ministerial hangman — we have consistently argued against capital punishment. To repeat ourselves, there are two strong arguments against the death penalty.

First, convincing studies have shown that capital punishment as a deterrent does not work. What works, instead, is a solid conviction rate, a judicial system that ensures that the guilty are punished for their crime, and that the sentence is commensurate with the crime committed. In India, on all these three departments, the records are abysmal. Conviction rates are still horrifyingly low, the guilty, even after being sentenced, find themselves walking much before their time is up (life imprisonment hardly ever amounts to ‘life’), and sentencing itself is chaotically subjective, depending at times on the whims and fancies of the judge.

In such a scenario, it is understandable for many to clamour for the death penalty — especially for serious and heinous crimes such as those committed by the likes of Afzal. But something being understandable doth not make it right, especially when beyond the emotive business of retribution, little else is ‘solved’ by killing him.

The second reason for opposing the death sentence is that it has no place in a civilised society — and, in this respect, the United States is no exception. There will be very vocal naysayers who will argue that a country like India, atavistic as it is, is not ready for ‘rational’ justice — and let there be no doubt that the death sentence is an irrational form of ‘settling the score’, no matter its statutory sanction. That is a weak argument that smacks of ‘chicken first or egg first?’ thinking. Scrap the death penalty. And let justice still be done.