Thursday October 21, 2021

The spectacle of the scaffold

January 27, 2018

We are all terrified that it could happen to us and that our children are not safe in their schools, homes or even on the streets. What happened to that beautiful little girl is everyone’s worst nightmare – and for her parents, an excruciating reality.

There are no words. But there is anger. Anger at how familiar all this seems and why it keeps happening. And fear that this isn’t the last of it.

When channelled constructively, this can lead to transformative change. This means better policing, use of forensic evidence, profiling of abusers and, more importantly, implementation of existing child protection mechanisms. In the wake of this horrific case, this is starting to happen.

But these action points are not flashy and don’t win elections. The concerted efforts don’t yield immediate results. The government is still reeling from its mismanagement of the Kasur child abuse racket in August 2015. Unfortunately, this means that an even bigger spectacle is needed to assuage the people’s collective anger.

Calls for a public execution have come in many forms in light of this tragedy – through a Twitter trend, emotional columns, tirades on talk shows and, most worryingly, a resolution in the Senate. There is a reason why it feels like we’ve been here before. Because we have. The death penalty has always been used a tool by various regimes across the world for political point-scoring. Public executions are not a ground-breaking idea – not anywhere in the world and certainly not in Pakistan.

Proponents of public hangings grossly overestimate its use as a deterrent and often cite the example of the Pappu murder and rape case where the culprits were publically hanged 37 years ago at the behest of General Ziaul Haq.

All of us wish to live in a world where no child was hurt in Pakistan after the public hanging of a child molester. But a cursory reading of newspaper archives from the decade that immediately followed this execution reveals the truth. Between 1983 and 1992, there were at least 11 reported cases of rape committed against children in Pakistan as young as four years of age. At least four of these cases surfaced in Lahore where the public execution of Pappu’s murderer and rapist took place.

Enthusiasts of public executions cite the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia that carry out hangings and beheadings in city squares and credit their low crime rates to this phenomenon. But Saudi Arabia has experienced a 102 percent rise in crimes, including murder, between 2012 and 2013 even though public executions were rampant during this period. Iran, which is consistently ranked as one of the top executioners in the world, increased the number of public executions from 2010 to 2015. There have also been multiple hangings for rape. But until March 2012, the country had failed to deter 900 rapists.

More disturbing is the eagerness with which we want children to witness these hangings. In 2013, a 12-year-old boy was accidentally hanged by his eight-year-old brother in Iran when he attempted to replicate an execution they had seen earlier in the week. A public execution would endanger the very people we are trying to protect. It’s easy to succumb to the most tempting, yet least effective solution.

The Supreme Court was cognisant of this seductive option back in 1992 when it took suo motu action on the issue of public hangings as a matter of public interest. In 1992, the government tried the same ‘special measures’ approach with the Special Courts for Speedy Trials Act. Under Section 10, the government sought the option to specify “the place of execution” of any sentence passed under the 1992 law, “having regard to the deterrent effect which such [an] execution is likely to have”.

The Supreme Court, in its wisdom, saw through the brutality of this practice and had little patience for this assumption as the data does today. The apex court categorically stated that “public hanging, even for the worst of criminals, was a violation of human dignity and, therefore, unconstitutional”.

So why are we staying true to the definition of insanity by repeating the same mistakes over and over again and expecting different results? The answer is simple. The aftermath of Zainab’s murder has seen several lawmakers scrambling to maintain the appearance of looking tough on crime, exploiting public sentiments in the wake of yet another tragedy and indicating through their actions that the 24-hour hunt has been little more than political point-scoring.

We all want justice for Zainab. But justice doesn’t look like violence. Justice doesn’t demand blood. Justice doesn’t deserve to be tainted with a rotting body on a noose. We must not confuse insanity with justice.

The writer is the executive director of the Justice Project Pakistan.