Thursday, June 7, 2012


Albert Camus presented the most persuasive arguments against capital punishment in his remarkable easy “Reflections on Guillotine” decades ago: it fails as a deterrent for murder, it is cynical and cruel, and it dehumanizes not only those directly involved in the execution but also the society too. There have arisen some new situations which provide additional, new arguments against the same. This note draws attention to some of these. Incidentally, by now a number of countries have abolished capital punishment and in some of the countries, where it exists, care is taken so that it is awarded in the “rarest of rare” cases.

One might view it with disbelief, but it has begun to be noted that awarding capital punishment has become a costly affair for the State. Sometimes (in fact, it is fast becoming the norm in many democracies) it takes about two decades or more for the judiciary and the administrative processes to be completed for the execution to take place. Considering the nature of the punishment, the system cannot be pressured to take quick decisions at any stage. The total expenditure (legal, administrative, etc.) on the trial of the convicts charged with various crimes punishable by death is not negligible. This is wasteful expenditure and with capital punishment abolished, this money could be used for improving the living condition of the inmates of a prison.

Some careful research on capital punishment in America has shown that the poor and the deprived tend to be awarded this punishment more often than the rich and the privileged. Sometimes because of sloppy investigation, the wrong person gets executed, and sometimes the condemned person undergoes a painful death because of the unprofessional or careless administration of the lethal injections. At times the execution becomes a cruel affair on account of a complex of factors, not merely the lack of due sensitivity of the prison staff. For instance, the condemned man, Troy Davis, was made to wait, strapped to the gurney, for about three hours for his execution, as the judges were deliberating on his fate, and his family anxiously waiting outside the prison for their verdict.  Davis’s situation is more poignant in view of the fact that his execution had been halted twice already. It is difficult to believe that such painful situations are specific to the US; it is just that some academics and journalists there have done careful research on the subject and published their findings, and the press has given the same adequate coverage.

What now follows is something Camus probably had not even thought of: because of political considerations (external or internal pressure, for example, although the former does not often yield the desired results), sometimes it is difficult to implement capital punishment. Both the party in power and the opposition have opposed the execution of the killers of Rajiv Gandhi. Similarly many groups in Punjab including the ruling party are not in favour of the execution of Balwant Singh Rajona, who had killed a former Chief Minister of that state. Influential political parties in Kashmir have reportedly advised the Central Government against the execution of Afzal Guru connected with the 2001 Parliament attack.  Many of them have spent a number of years in prison; Rajiv Gandhi killers have been in jail close to two decades. Some might consider it unfair to both the convicted and the legal system if the ones condemned to death are executed after being in prison for longer than the effective duration of life imprisonment in India, which is normally about fourteen years; to them it would amount to giving them two punishments which are really alternatives to each other. Incidentally, the social groups or the political parties who have opposed the execution of the persons named above are not against capital punishment as such; they are believed to be concerned about the possible political fallout of the executions. In a democratic country it is quite understandable; social and political systems do not work in vacuum – anywhere, needless to add.

However, on account of the above, there is the apprehension that those who do not have the support of some influential pressure group: social, religious or political – the poor and the marginalized – become vulnerable. The Supreme Court of India is aware of it and seems to have expressed concern. But ultimately to execute or not to execute the condemned man has got to be, willy-nilly, an executive decision. Now, in view of all the above, the only reasonable decision one would arrive at is the following: abolish capital punishment.

I tend to believe that in the contemporary milieu, many in our country would not really be inflexible with regard to the abolition of capital punishment. There is a view that death penalty must be restricted to crimes such as terrorism. But “terrorism” would always be difficult to define, especially for the intended purpose, and then universalistic definitions would always be questioned, and rightly so. And political interventions will most likely be the norm rather than the exception in the case of a terrorist, except when he is a cross border terrorist. But would it be morally justifiable that a country would have the provision of capital punishment only for the foreigner?

The real question is of an adequate substitute for death penalty, a matter that is extremely complex and sensitive and that needs a separate discussion. Just a word or two here: not many consider a fourteen year prison term to be an adequate substitute. “Life imprisonment must be life imprisonment” is an alternative that some consider viable. Similarly, there seems to be a growing feeling that a term of imprisonment need not be restricted to twenty years; it is not, for example, in US. At the same time, prison terms for eighty years or fifty years are not understandable, especially when awarded to an old man. Recently Charles Taylor, former Liberian dictator, sixty four years old, was awarded a jail term of fifty years by an International court for war crimes. All said, doesn’t it seem cruel to have a lifer withering away to death within the prison walls?

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