Death Penalty MUST be Abolished!
On 18 February 2022, a Special Court, designated for speedy trial of the accused in the 2008 Ahmedabad serial blasts, handed the death to 38 of 49 convicts. The remaining eleven were awarded life terms in jail. A few days earlier, these 49 were convicted by the Special Judge who also acquitted 38 other accused in the case. The convicted were apparently responsible for exploding as many as 22 bombs in an hour in Ahmedabad, on July 26, 2008, killing 56 people and leaving over 200 injured, in different parts of the city.
There was plenty of ‘celebration’ in Ahmedabad city after the stringent punishment was announced. The Twitter handle of the Ahmedabad BJP tweeted a highly irresponsible and insensitive caricature of some Muslim-looking men being hanged with the national motto ‘Satyameva Jayate’ emblazoned alongside. Twitter finally pulled out this tweet after they received an avalanche of protests from everywhere! The defence lawyers said the death penalty for the 38 convicts is the highest in a single case in the country; in 1998, a TADA court had handed the death sentence to 26 accused in the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The convicted will apparently appeal the sentencing handed to them.
No one condones the crime they were involved in! Any act of violence, be it serial bombing or domestic violence or for that matter even hate speeches that could lead to violence- must be condemned unequivocally, addressed squarely and nipped in the bud as early as possible! Appropriate punishment must be meted out to the perpetrators of all violence (it does not matter who they are), particularly the heinous ones. There are certainly no two ways or two opinions about that.
Interestingly, 27/28 February (and the weeks following) will commemorate the full twenty years since the 2002 Gujarat Carnage (which many refer to as ‘genocide’). The bogey(S-6) of the Sabarmati Express from Faizabad to Ahmedabad was set on fire, early morning on 27 February 2002 resulting in the tragic death of fifty-nine passengers. Nothing untoward happened that day in Gujarat or anywhere else.
What followed more than twenty-four hours later and only in Gujarat, was, however, a brutal carnage! Apparently (and this from eye witness accounts), the Chief Minister of the State convened a meeting of some high-level BJP and Government functionaries very late evening of 27 February. What transpired at this meeting has two different versions – but the actions that resulted were blatantly obvious: Muslims all over Gujarat were brutalized, raped, dispossessed of their lands and houses and murdered. The intensity of violence for days on, can be easily categorized as a crime against humanity. At least two thousand Muslims were killed and thousands more were dispossessed of their houses and lands, their property looted and burned and affected in every possible way. Numbers pale into insignificance when one recollects the brutality of what took place. For weeks and then months, rampaging mobs indulged in some of the most despicable acts. Besides, the law-and-order mechanism had not merely abdicated its responsibility but was also seen actively involved in this carnage.
Thanks to the dogged and relentless efforts of concerned citizens and organizations – the Gujarat Carnage then and today, is still on the radar. There certainly have been some small triumphs in this pursuit for justice and truth. That is certainly not enough. The biggest perpetrators and the masterminds of this Crime against Humanity- still roam the streets fearlessly as they continue to mainstream their fascist agenda of hate and vilification, of divisiveness and denigration, of exclusiveness and violence. Some of the linchpins today rule the country. They have succeeded in generating a palpable presence in the hearts and minds of millions through their anti-Constitutional methods of falsehood and vindictiveness!
But none of the perpetrators of this bloodiest chapter in the history of independent India were given the ‘death penalty’ or for that matter even exemplary punishment. Some key persons who were convicted and sent to jail were in a matter of time even released on bail. Today, they happily enjoy their freedom protected by the most powerful of the land! That is the pathetic state of our criminal justice system!
The key question then is whether they should have been given the death penalty too? The answer is a clear and unequivocal ‘NO’. Only God is the author of life and death. No one, not even the State, has the right to take the life of anyone! The death penalty must be abolished! It is a barbaric act and not in sync with civilised society anywhere. No violence can be justified; no murder can be rectified; the death penalty however is not the answer! Objective studies clearly demonstrate that in nations and societies where the death penalty has been abolished, the crime rate has decreased dramatically.
Amnesty International states that at the end of 2020, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty in law for all crimes (the number has changed since then; besides, on 20 January 2022 the Parliament of Papua New Guinea decided to abolish the death penalty) and 144 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice; 28 countries have effectively abolished the death penalty by not executing anyone in the past 10 years, and 55 countries still retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
The International Commission Against Death Penalty (ICDP) enunciates four major reasons why the death penalty should be abolished: (i) the risk of executing innocent people exists in any justice system, (ii) the arbitrary application of the death penalty can never be ruled out (iii) the death penalty is incompatible with human rights and human dignity (iv) the death penalty does not deter crime effectively. Some time ago, in a message to the ICDP, Pope Francis said, “today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed; capital punishment contradicts God’s plan for man and society and does not render justice to the victims but rather fosters vengeance.”
‘Dead Man Walking’ is a powerful film based on the life of Sr. Helen Prejean. This 1995 American film stars Susan Sarandon (as Sr. Helen) and Sean Penn (as a prisoner Mathew Poncelet on death row). Sarandon received the ‘Academy Award for Best Actress’ for her stellar role in this film. The film highlights the relationship between Sr. Helen and Mathew first through correspondence and then by personal visits by Sr. Helen both to Mathew and his family. She desperately tries to either get a pardon for Mathew or his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment. Mathew has ‘apparently’ murdered a teenage couple but till the very end continues to be arrogant, racist and sexist without demonstrating the slightest bit of remorse. He denies he ever killed the teenagers. Sr. Helen’s efforts are all in vain and Mathew is finally executed but not before he finally admits to Sr. Helen that he had done that dastardly deed and asks forgiveness.
Sr. Helen Prejean is no ordinary Nun. She is a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph in the United States and for several years now she has been fighting against capital punishment through her ‘Ministry against the death penalty’. On her website, she writes “the death penalty is one of the great moral issues facing our country, yet most people rarely think about it and very few of us take the time to delve deeply enough into this issue to be able to make an inform decision about it’. Sr. Helen’s fight against the death penalty has paid rich dividends and has certainly impacted the Social Teaching of the Church. She is not alone in this struggle as more individuals and organisations, all across the globe, join the campaign against this barbaric act.
On 3 October 2020, Pope Francis gave to the world his powerful and path-breaking Encyclical, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ (Brothers and Sisters All). In his Encyclical, he devotes eight paras (#263- 270) dealing with the ‘death penalty’. He does give any room for ambiguity when he emphatically states, “There is yet another way to eliminate others, one aimed not at countries but at individuals. It is the death penalty. Saint John Paul II stated clearly and firmly that the death penalty is inadequate from a moral standpoint and no longer necessary from that of penal justice. There can be no stepping back from this position. Today we state clearly that “the death penalty is inadmissible” and the Church is firmly committed to calling for its abolition worldwide.” (#263) With ‘Fratelli Tutti’ Pope Francis has moved opposition to the death penalty into the foreground of Catholic social teaching, completing the church’s long journey of mercy and reconciliation. ‘Mercy has been his consistent and pet spiritual theme!
There is another significant para in this section; so applicable to the death sentence given to the accused of the Ahmedabad serial bombing. Pope Francis says, “The arguments against the death penalty are numerous and well-known. The Church has rightly called attention to several of these, such as the possibility of judicial error and the use made of such punishment by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes as a means of suppressing political dissidence or persecuting religious and cultural minorities, all victims whom the legislation of those regimes consider ‘delinquents. All Christians and people of goodwill are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, legal or illegal, in all its forms but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom. I would link this to life imprisonment…
A life sentence is a secret death penalty”.” (#268). Are Christians (and particularly Catholics) aware of this Church teaching? Sadly, ‘Fratelli Tutti’ has not been made an essential dimension of Church Teaching by clerics who do not want to get out of their comfort zones! Did we hear any of our Bishops going public in condemning this latest death penalty sentence? On the other hand, some citizens who tweeted against the judgement were immediately trolled by the ‘bhakts’ with derogatory comments!
Commenting on Pope Francis’ catechesis on the death penalty in ‘Fratelli Tutti’, Sr. Helen Prejean says, “I rejoice in Pope Francis’s ringing proclamation of the inviolable dignity of all human life, even the life of murderers, and I am heartened by the church’s unequivocal opposition to governments’ use of the death penalty in all instances. In killing chambers, I’ve seen close-up the torture and suffering of human beings, rendered defenseless and killed by the state, their lives stripped of all dignity. I rejoice that now this clarity of church teaching will help end this unspeakable suffering and spark the Gospel of Jesus to be lived in its fullness: restoration of human life, not humiliation, torture and execution.” She goes on to challenge all Catholics to put Pope Francis’ teaching into concrete action saying, “Devotional assent is not enough. Unless we heed the Holy Father’s commitment to work for the abolition of the death penalty, his words, however inspiring, will remain just that: words on a page, stillborn, an annunciation, but no incarnation. In us, may these words live!” Do we have the spiritual depth and the prophetic courage to face this challenge?
No act of violence can be justified anywhere; more so, when the victims are innocent people. All dastardly acts have to be condemned strongly, but two wrongs have never made a right; just because a person has committed a particular crime, the answer certainly is not the death penalty. The State has the duty to protect the ‘right to life’ of every single citizen. This is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the Constitution of India. By espousing capital punishment, the State equates itself with the perpetrator. The death penalty is cruel, inhuman and degrading. Today more than two-thirds of the world have abolished the death penalty. It is time that India does so immediately too!
Do we need a Sr Helen Prejean in our midst to remind us of our responsibility? Can we allow the words of Martin Luther King, “returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”; or for that matter, those of Mahatma Gandhi, “I cannot in all conscience agree to anyone being sent to gallows. God alone can take life because He alone gives it…”- to permeate our hearts and minds? Above all, do we have the humanity to say a full-throated “NO” to the death penalty? The death penalty must be abolished! Let us begin by demanding that the death penalty given to the 38 serial bombers is revoked immediately!
The Author: Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer.