Death penalty is a form of torture. Abolish it

In retaining the use of the death penalty, India is in the company of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and the US. Top it all, capital punishment has not proved a deterrent to violent crime in India. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe must bend towards a more reformative version of justice rather than a retributive one.

editorials Updated: Dec 21, 2017 11:03 IST
Hindustan Times
Death Penalty,Capital Punishment,Supreme Court
The Supreme Court itself has raised questions about arbitrary sentencing, which have not been satisfactorily answered. In addition to the possible miscarriage of justice, there is the matter of how inhumane a long wait is to the convicted prisoner(Abhimanyu)

At least 60 former Supreme Court judges have expressed concern over India’s criminal justice system in remarkably candid interviews conducted by the National Law University in association with The Death Penalty Project. Among the issues they have flagged are the frequent use of torture, fabrication of evidence in criminal cases, a flawed legal aid system, all of which contributed to wrongful convictions.

That’s not all. Delays in judicial proceedings -- all too common in India -- mean that undertrials often spend longer in custody than the maximum time for which they can be sentenced for the crime in question. Worryingly, despite these reservations on the state of the system, judicial support for the death penalty had not significantly dipped. There is a great deal of subjectivity in awarding the death penalty as the “rarest of rare” doctrine has been interpreted differently in different courts and by different judges.

In the words of one judge, such arbitrariness is “horrible and terrifying.” It raises questions about the very legitimacy of the death penalty, which seems to often be influenced by personal prejudices and inconsistent legal procedures. At the root of this is the broken criminal justice system. The police forces in different states are stretched to breaking point, and they are not trained in new policing methods relying instead on old forms of interrogation which are often inhuman and violative of fundamental rights.

Poor evidence collection has meant that cases either drag on for ever or fall through the cracks. The Supreme Court itself has raised questions about arbitrary sentencing that have not been satisfactorily answered. In addition to the possible miscarriage of justice, there is the matter of how inhumane a long wait is to the convicted prisoner, and prisoners on death row usually wait the longest before their sentence is carried out.

As the law commission put it, “During this time, the prisoner on death row suffers from extreme agony, anxiety and debilitating fear arising out of an imminent yet uncertain execution.” It also weighed in against solitary confinement and the degrading conditions that prisoners on death row live in.

This in itself constitutes a form of torture. This form of punishment goes against the grain of democratic traditions which uphold the dignity and human rights of all individuals, even those thought to have committed heinous crimes. In retaining the use of the death penalty, India is in the company of Iran, China, Saudi Arabia and the US. Finally, capital punishment has not proved a deterrent to violent crime in India. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe must bend towards a more reformative version of justice rather than a retributive one.

First Published: Dec 21, 2017 11:03 IST