A grisly spectacle

28 Feb 2020

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The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.
The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

ARCHBISHOP Desmond Tutu once said: “To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.” There is no doubt that the continuing incidents of child abuse and murders across the country require action. However, we need to ask ourselves whether such mediaeval retribution is the right approach. Pakistan’s justice system is undoubtedly flawed, with nominal conviction rates and even lower rates of actual punishment being meted out.

Keeping in view the growing public sentiment against child sexual abuse, the National Assembly recently passed a non-binding resolution in support of publicly hanging those convicted of such crimes. As the world moves towards a more humane approach towards criminal justice, wherein the focus is on the crime rather than the criminal, many of our politicians have decided to regress towards the Stone Age notion of seeking vengeance and retribution rather than strengthening the justice system.

Some refer to such acts as ‘populist punitiveness’, where politicians allow the electoral advantage of a policy to take precedence over its penal effectiveness. The notion behind this is that the public is a key actor in shaping penal practices, and the concept of placating the mob by enacting public spectacles of punishment is the correct way to address certain crimes.

The mediaeval practice of public hanging has long since been abolished by most countries, as research has shown that capital punishment as a public spectacle only serves to further brutalise society, rather than act as a deterrent to the crime. For a society to seek satisfaction from publicly watching another human being die — even the worst of criminals — will ultimately diminish and pervert the notion of humanity. In fact, it will serve no purpose other than entertaining the masses and ultimately lowering public morality, thus working counter to the notion of crime prevention.

Public executions will only further brutalise society.

Moreover, a global UN survey on the death penalty and homicide rates from 1990-2010 has highlighted that it will not deter people from committing serious and violent crimes. For example, according to the FBI’s 2010 Crime in the US report, those states in which the death penalty still exists have higher rates of violent crime than those in which it has been abolished.

In reality, the deciding factor in deterring people from committing a crime is the likelihood of being caught and punished. And therein lies the problem in the way that punishment for sexual predators who target children is being addressed.

Policymakers need to focus on the right set of reforms to address this matter. It begins with immediate preventive measures. The Zainab Alert Bill, though it has taken many months to finalise, is a step in the right direction. However, its proper and effective implementation is crucial, for an act of law is only as good as its implementation.

Then there is the issue of the media frenzy surrounding cases of child sexual abuse, given our society’s penchant for sensationalism. The manner in which such cases are being reported leaves a lot to be desired. The media, in its mad rush for breaking and exclusive news, will often insensitively probe the families of the victims. Rather than sensitising the public on such matters, such media coverage only aggravates public hysteria and further traumatises the victims and their families.

In addition to sensitising the media, there is a need to improve the overall law-enforcement process by inducting more women medical examiners, improving investigations of all reported crimes, and allocating funds for the mental and physical rehabilitation of victims and their families. The child protection laws, drafted since long, need to be implemented as if the life and future of our country depends on it; after all, it does.

In opposing public hangings, one does not mitigate the moral repugnance of the crime, but focuses on the importance of tackling the crime, rather than on punishing one individual. Everyone has an alienable human right to life, even those who commit murder. With a system that bows to influence, it will be of no surprise for an innocent man to take the blame for a crime committed by a rich man. Indeed, it is easy to sway the justice system with the right amount of power and influence.

The need of the hour for Pakistan is to rebuild the way we contend with criminals and crimes. The accused should have an attempt at rehabilitation in jail, while their crime is properly investigated. Pakistan’s jail guide affords for its inmates the opportunity to learn vocational skills, or improve upon their education if they so wish. Jail reforms, specialised rehabilitation programmes, and provision of funds for psychological treatment of criminals are all part of the solution we need to be working on as a society, rather than egging on violence in exchange for violence.

The writer is founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation.

Published in Dawn, February 28th, 2020