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September 17, 2020

The punishment question

Editorial

 
September 17, 2020

As a nation that has become increasingly bloodthirsty, we are extremely good at proposing punishments for crime. This happens after every gory crime committed anywhere in the country and for some months public anger remains high. Now, after the gruesome motorway gang-rape case, Prime Minister Imran Khan has spoken out in favour of public hangings of the accused once convicted. Since Pakistan has GSP Plus status, which does not support hangings, the prime minister has said chemical castration will be looked into by the government.

The issue of the severity of punishment has been raised time and again over the past week, especially given the hanging-friendly environment in the country and within government. We really should not want to devolve from a country that only a few years ago had a moratorium on capital punishment to one that turns a matter of life and death into a public spectacle. Our focus should instead be on reforming our investigative and judicial systems. It is telling that DNA played such a central part in identifying the suspects as it has previously been opposed by the Council of Islamic Ideology in rape cases. What we need is consistent and effective punishment instead of jumping immediately to increasing the severity of punishment. Our history of prosecuting suspected criminals is far from perfect which has undermined confidence in the efficacy of the judiciary. This is an opportunity to show that the system works. Politicians and law-enforcement officials should also refrain from doing a lap of honour. The fact is that rape is alarmingly common in Pakistan and the police have often been accused of victim-blaming and a lack of interest in tracking down culprits. This is reflected well in the terribly low rate of conviction in rape cases – less than five percent. In such a reality, should we not be focusing on reporting rape and convicting rapists than what way we get to punish them?

In case of chemical castration, a very important point is that castration assumes that the crime is one of lust and not power, when in fact rape is a crime of power and not sex. These and other considerations and details we hope are being studied and understood by the government as it looks into the punishments issue. What one hopes should happen, though, is that the government as well as the nation look at what has failed the women of Pakistan, and it has little to do with the kind of punishment a perpetrator gets and much more about social and institutional failings. Let’s at least start with the demand that in rape cases, authorities have to believe the victim – just as they do when other crimes like robberies are reported. Most victims are scared of reporting the crime out of fear that it is their character that will be put on trial. This inversion of justice now needs to stop.