IN the week ahead, hangings are to resume in Pakistan as the federal government’s month-long moratorium on executions has expired with the end of Ramazan.
The hangings should not resume and the government should urgently reinstate its moratorium on all executions. That would not only be the principled thing to do, but also a humane and moral stance – given the gross irregularities that have almost come to define a broken criminal justice system.
Even then, the death penalty does not have a place in a modern and democratic society. But advocates of the death penalty here tend to rely on two lines of defence.
Take a look: Hangings to resume after Eid
First, there are occasions where there is reasonable doubt that the accused has committed the crime. In such scenarios, the broader failures of the criminal justice system should not be used to shield criminals, according to the pro-death penalty camp.
Second, what about the victims’ families – do they not deserve justice for their relatives, in the cases where the death penalty is handed down for murder? Both those arguments are specious, however.
To begin with, to deny the death penalty to any convict is not the same as setting him free. At no point does opposing the death penalty translate into setting criminals free – death-row convicts ought to remain in jail until a system is in place to determine fairly and impartially if any of them deserve to be released at some point before their natural lives come to an end.
A life spent behind bars, cut off from society and deprived of one’s freedom, is a significant and, where applicable, a deterrent-inducing punishment. That also helps address the issue of the rights of the victims’ families – there is certainly punishment involved where a murder has been convicted, but a punishment determined by the state and not based on bloody notions of vengeance and retributive justice. That, though, is only a lopsided debate.
The criminal justice system is not about merely the exceptions and the perceived rights of some individuals – it is about the totality of society and balancing multiple needs in the most sensible way possible.
In Pakistan, where the criminal justice system routinely convicts roughly 10pc of the accused, there is extreme disparity in the kind of legal representation rich and poor accused can access.
It is well known that the prison population is skewed towards the less well-off segments of society. Therefore, even when courts find beyond reasonable doubt that an accused is guilty of a crime that attracts the death penalty, there is a great deal of doubt about whether the legal representation of the accused put forward the best possible defence.
Finally, there is the tragic reality that a wide range of crimes attract the death penalty in Pakistan – not just terrorism, murder and extreme sexual violence. Extending the death-penalty moratorium is necessary.
Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2015