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Opinion

February 4, 2018

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When deterrence fails

Ever since the murderer of seven-year-old Zainab was captured, there have been repeated calls from various sections of society to publicly hang him. The proponents of this method of punishment have insisted that Zainab’s brutal murder caused emotional trauma to the entire nation and normalcy will not prevail until the perpetrator is publicly executed.

They also believe that the primary objective of inflicting punishment on a criminal is to make people see that if they commit a wrong, it may come back to haunt them. The proponents of public executions have argued that hangings carried out within the four walls of the prison, away from the public gaze and in the wee hours of the morning, do not have any deterrent value and, in fact, defeat the very purpose for which death penalties were originally introduced.

A comparison has also been made between Saudi Arabia and the US as it is often believed that more crimes are reported during one night in New York than in an entire year in Saudi Arabia.

It is further said that public hanging provides an opportunity for the relatives of a victim to see the criminal meet his/her fate. This, in turn, allays some of their traumas and lessens their grief. It may be noted here that many proponents of public hangings also refer to religious text to prove their point.

Many of them have also argued that even if murder or other heinous crimes are perpetrated against individuals, the entire society becomes a victim in one form or the other. This is why the state prosecutes these crimes under criminal law as opposed to civil law, where individuals move the wheels of justice themselves against those who have wronged them. The advocates of public executions believe that since the punishment is eventually inflicted on the behalf of the people constituting the state, they should be able to see it.

Those who are against to public executions also have arguments that are no less potent. To begin with, they reject the notion that public executions actually have a far stronger deterrent impact. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, public executions are carried out for crimes such as drug smuggling. Those who oppose public executions firmly believe that there are a number of other socioeconomic factors that create differences in the crime statistics of Saudi Arabia and New York.

Many opponents of public hangings have argued that, while the public lynching of a bandit who is caught red-handed has become a norm, it hasn’t brought down the incidence of street crimes.

The cold-blooded public lynching of two boys in Sialkot a few years ago is also cited in this regard. It has been said that far from creating fear in the hearts of potential wrongdoers, the lynch mob’s actions created sympathy for the boys who had allegedly killed a person or two during an attempted robbery.

It is rather said that the more we resort to public executions, the more potent the voices opposing the death penalty – from within the country as well as outside it – would become. Needless to say, Pakistan is already under tremendous pressure from the EU and certain other international entities to outlaw this penalty.

Some sections of society believe that what we saw in Kasur last month was an act driven by a psychological disorder on the part of the perpetrator. Criminals with such tendencies are not deterred by the fear of punishment or public execution.

Executing someone publicly is, in fact, inhumane and strips the condemned person of his privacy and dignity. State institutions and the individuals representing them will, in all circumstances, hold a high moral ground and should not be seen engaging in something akin to a tit-for-tat or knee-jerk reaction. What we should be seeking here is justice and not naked vengeance.

With regard to providing justice to the victim’s families and healing their wounds, it is said that the impact of seeing the perpetrator being hanged is nominal as nothing can bring their loved ones back.

The most important concern that the opponents of public hangings share is that public executions will further radicalise a society where fanaticism, extremism and intolerance have already taken root. All this may even lead to a further increase in the very acts that we are seeking to curb. If nothing else, a time may come where people will become acclimatised to public executions as well and start viewing them as a routine matter. Referring in particular to the psyche of Pakistanis, the opponents of the public executions have warned the proponents that instead of taking a lesson in deterrence, there is a strong likelihood that the public will sensationalise such an event. A carnival-like environment will be created at the venue where people would come to see executions as a form of entertainment.

With arguments on both sides of the divide having substantial weight, the government should tread carefully and take a well-thought-out decision by account for all the relevant factors. Whatever decision it chooses to take, there is no denying the fact that it is the certainty, and not the severity, of the punishment that acts as the biggest deterrence.

In addition, the inordinate delays during the legal proceedings renders the punishment ineffective in creating deterrence as people do not see the consequence of the criminal act anytime close to it and, therefore, do not associate the punishment with the act.

The entire criminal justice system is, therefore, in dire need of reforms. A comprehensive exercise needs to be conducted to identify the factors that make such criminals and understand how they could go on killing spree without being apprehended for so long. While we must treat the symptoms, we should not lose sight of the disease itself.

The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance columnist and a barrister.

Email: [email protected]

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