IN 2007, six boys died in Turkey, Pakistan and the US imitating Saddam Hussein’s hanging from the year before. In 2018, after watching an execution video on TV, an eight-year-old boy committed suicide in Haripur.
This past week, a 12-year-old boy in India accidently took his own life, imitating the hanging of Bhagat Singh.
These incidents shed light on the potential impact of violence on young minds; the very minds the National Assembly claims to want to protect, through a resolution supporting public hangings of the perpetrators of child abuse.
Broadcasting something as violent as an execution only adds to social bloodlust. For some, it may arise as negative recrudescence, inspiring even more crime in society. A sensationalist spectacle like a public hanging normalises brutality and thwarts the sanctity of life, the effect of which may filter down to the lowest spectrum of society, resulting in even greater violence.
Public hangings will increase the burden on the victim.
In Pakistani society, the discussion of child abuse is already taboo. The culture of silence makes it difficult for the victims and their family members to report rape or other similar incidents. Moreover, the cumbersome legal process adds insult to injury. With public hanging as punishment, victims and their families will be forced to carry an additional burden as they will have to grapple with the possibility of not only sending someone (in most cases a person they know or are related to) to the gallows but also have the world publicly watch them being hanged.
As per statistics, most of the sexual abuse that children suffer is at the hands of close relatives, family members, neighbours, or other acquaintances. According to a study conducted in Pakistan, in 78 out of 100 cases the perpetrators of child abuse were close acquaintances. For every 100 assaults, 83 abusers were persons of ‘trust’, known to the victim or his/her family. Public hangings will discourage victims and their parents from reporting these crimes. They may have to resort to silence to protect a family member from being killed in public. Reporting the crime may also be considered as bringing shame to the entire family in some cases, putting more pressure on the parents of the child.
It is also pertinent to understand that the fear of the death penalty and public hanging may motivate the perpetrator to end the life of his victim, mitigating the risk of identification and conviction. This puts a child in even more danger and causes further trauma to the family.
The support for public hangings for child abusers may stem from the belief that this may be an agent of deterrence for potential future criminals. However, it has been proven that death penalty and public executions do not affect crime rates one way or the other. One must quote the famous example given by Arthur Koestler of the hanging of pickpockets in England in the 18th century. More pickpocketing happened at the site of execution than had been done by the condemned man who was being hanged to set an example.
The demand for public hanging of perpetrator Imran Ali in the rape case of Kasur’s young Zainab did not stop the next person from committing the same crime. Revenge was ensured; Imran Ali was hanged, albeit not publicly. But what was done to support the family members mentally and emotionally after the gruesome killing of their daughter? Nothing. The death penalty was a diversion for the people — their outrage was satisfied.
But, on average, seven new cases of child sexual abuse are reported daily in Pakistan. Many go unreported due to several factors including societal taboos and the failing legal system of Pakistan. Relying on retributive justice as a deterrent has never proved an effective tactic. What is essential is to study and change social attitudes towards gender, power and sex in the country.
In the conversation around sexual abuse, very little attention has been paid to preventive and social measures, mainly because they do not come with the same political reward as the death penalty. We require investment in empirical research and evidence-based decision-making to devise our policy framework. Extensive reform including the introduction of rehabilitation is required in the criminal justice system of Pakistan, which may not satisfy the need for immediate retribution to calm our collective anger but will have a long-term effect on the overall rate of crime in the country.
Lastly, the death penalty and public executions cause the moral distinction between a criminal and the rest of us to slip away; we prove to be as bloodthirsty as the murderer. In some cases, even more so.
The writer is a communications and policy professional working in the field of development and human rights.
Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2020