Death penalty doesn't stop child abuse. What's it for then?

The call to murder is the ultimate distraction. It is the most cynical act of manipulation.
Published October 9, 2019

The bodies of three young children who were raped and killed in Kasur were discovered less than one year after the execution of Imran Ali for the rape and murder of young Zainab.

Imran Ali, despite calls for a public hanging, was executed inside the walls of Kot Lakhpat jail, Lahore. Yet, his execution was public in the sense of it being inescapable in the national conversation, as a response to an unspeakable assault on common decency and moral fabric of the society. The cries for revenge, public hanging and the execution itself did not, however, stop the perpetrator of the next round of rape and killings.

Before Imran Ali, there was Javed Iqbal, the serial killer who confessed to the murder of 100 young boys. The judge, while sentencing him to the gallows in March 2000, wrote “you will be strangled to death in front of the parents whose children you killed. Your body will then be cut into 100 pieces and put in acid, the same way you killed the children." Javed Iqbal later died in an apparent suicide while in prison.

The point in the dominant discourse for Imran Ali and Javed Iqbal was not about protecting our children from the next Imran Ali or Javed Iqbal, but about looking tough as a government and a society in the face of an elementary, unconscionable failure.

The death penalty is always about just that: demonstrating our willingness and capacity to inflict murder. The message is not directed to the future murderers and rapists (it demonstrably doesn’t work on them), but to the public at large.

Related: No, death penalty is not a solution to child sexual abuse

The relationship between an authoritarian state and the death was eloquently highlighted by Robert Badinter, French Minister of Justice under Francois Mitterrand in his September 1981 speech to the French parliament. “It is anti-justice…it is passion and fear prevailing over humanity.”

More importantly, “in countries of freedom, abolition is almost the rule; in dictatorships, capital punishment is everywhere in use. This division of the world doesn’t result from just a coincidence. It shows a correlation. The true political signification of capital punishment is that it results from the idea that State has the right to take advantage of the citizen, till the possibility to suppress the citizen’s life.”

Following the revolution in Iran, the Ziaul Haq regime began disseminating the news of executions being carried out under Ayatollah Khomeini. Archives of Pakistani newspapers following the overthrow of the Raza Shah’s regime in February 1979 have the death sentences being handed down as headline news and Khomeini doing “nashta” of “dozens” (of people).

It seemed slightly odd; yet, it was deliberately aimed at creating acceptance for state-sponsored violence and setting up the stage of the biggest execution/murder of Pakistan’s history, the execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on April 5, 1979.

Also read: 'Mr President, grant mercy to my daughter who was tortured into a false murder confession'

In 1983, the murderer of Pappu, a young boy from Lahore, was publicly executed and the body of the killer was left hanging for an entire day as a spectacle. The rape and murder of children did not end in the country or even the city; however, the point had been made yet again by the Zia dictatorship that it took perverse pleasure in making a spectacle of violence. Floggings of activists and journalists become significantly more palatable when there are bodies hanging from lamp posts.

The deterrence argument for the death penalty has been widely discredited and most governments, including Pakistan, make the deterrence argument feebly and almost unwillingly, since that is not the purpose of the death penalty.

Arthur Koestler in his seminal case against the death penalty in England wrote about the time when pickpockets were publicly executed, and other pickpockets would take advantage of the crowds gathered to witness the executions to exercise their talents. In 1886, out of 167 men at the Bristol prison sentenced to public execution, 164 had witnessed at least one public execution.

The call to murder is the ultimate distraction, the most powerful rallying cry for the mob. In a society walking wounded, it is the most cynical act of manipulation. The victims, like most victims of mob attacks, are marginalised or the poor.

Read next: Pedophilia, masculinity and the media

Protecting our children requires doing the hard work of reforming the criminal justice system to make it more responsive, tackling structural and societal barriers and creating a more open society. However, hanging a Pappu or Imran Ali is much more immediate, tangible, easier and dishonest.

The news then becomes about Imran Ali, revenge and how justice has been served, rather than the fact that Zainab was abducted from Kasur where over 700 cases of child abuse have been recorded since 2015. It will for a blood-fueled moment obscure the fact that, on average, seven new cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily in Pakistan.

The argument applies to all cases of death penalty including rape, child abuse, terrorism and the everyday murder. In putting people to death, the government neither attempts deterrence nor enacts justice; it simply kills because it can.

This article is part of a collaboration with Justice Project Pakistan in the lead-up to the World Day Against the Death Penalty on October 10th. To commemorate the day, JPP will be hosting an immersive live art experience at Bari Studios, Lahore from 5:30pm till 10pm.