Thursday December 07, 2023

Not the answer

By Editorial Board
October 03, 2023

One of the most stubborn myths in our political discourse is that the death penalty deters crimes, of any sort, and that it is an effective tool when it comes to building a safer and more just society. Every now and again, especially after there has been some high-profile crime, the admiration of a certain segment of Pakistan for the death penalty and public hangings rears its ugly head. This time around a bill proposed by a Jamaat-e-Islami senator and passed by the Senate Standing Committee on interior aims to legalize public hangings of rapists. The bill has been promptly condemned by the PPP and foreign affairs and interior ministries.

The narrative espoused by the proponents of the death penalty, and other brutal forms of punishment, goes something like this: ‘Pakistan’s courts are too slow, corrupt and lenient to protect the people from criminals. We need speedy justice and to make an example of criminals through brutal public punishments in order to maintain law and order’. Like all false narratives, this one also contains a nugget of truth. Our legal system is indeed plagued by backlogs and inefficiencies too numerous to count that make justice a rare commodity for the many Pakistanis who have been wronged. However, there is little solid evidence to prove that hanging criminals, in public or elsewhere, reduces the crime rate in any way. This country has had a moratorium on executions since 2008. Were we really a much safer and more just country before then?

Former climate change minister and PPP Senator Sherry Rehman has rightly stated that crimes like rape and other human rights violations have only increased since General Zia introduced public punishments during his rule. Ironically, the steps that would most effectively counter problems like rape such as the empowerment of women and the inculcation of a culture of gender equality are often opposed by the loudest proponents of the death penalty and public punishments. This creates the false perception that only through inflicting pain and humiliation can society be kept safe rather than implementing the legal reforms and cultural changes that will protect people from those who seek to harm them. Nor was the time when the death penalty was in use noticeably safer for the vast majority of Pakistanis. Another contradiction is the fact that those most sceptical of the current justice system suddenly begin to believe it is capable of determining who should live and die when the matter of the death penalty comes up. This does not mean that we should resign ourselves to high crime rates or that Pakistan does not have a problem with law and order. But both past and current experience should be sufficient for us to tell that executions and public punishments are a definitive dead end.