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9 May 2016 Editorial


9 MAY, 2016

Poverty and the death row

Opposition to the death penalty is often rooted in arguments about its irreversibility, its essential cruelty, the possibility of error and the false sense of justice in doing unto convicted murderers what they had done to their victims. In the Indian context, politics surrounding the prisoners’ ethnic origin or linguistic affinity is often the basis for pleas for clemency. Rarely is a more compelling reason invoked: the possibility of an offender’s economic background, educational level, social status or religious identity working against his interests in legal proceedings. A report released on Friday by the National Law University, Delhi, on the working of the death penalty in India provides validation and proof for something that those familiar with administration of justice knew all along: that most of those sentenced to death in the country are poor and uneducated; and many belong to religious minorities. In addition, a revealing number is that as many as 241 out of 385 death row convicts were first-time offenders. Some may have been juveniles when they committed capital offences, but lacked the documentation to prove their age. Against the salutary principle that those too young and too old be spared the death sentence, 54 death row convicts whose age was available were between 18 and 21 at the time of the offence, and seven had crossed 60 years of age. An average prisoner awaiting execution is likely to be from a religious minority, a Dalit caste, a backward class, or from an economically vulnerable family, and is unlikely to have finished secondary schooling.

The late President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, had once said a study by his office into the background of convicts seeking mercy showed “a social and economic bias”. He digressed from his prepared text during a public lecture to ask, “Why are so many poor people on death row?” The link between socio-economic standing and access to competent legal counsel and effective representation is quite strong. A question of concern that arises is whether these statistics indicate systemic bias or institutionalised prejudice. It is not uncommon that legal grounds unavailable to the vulnerable are invoked in favour of the influential. A recent instance is that of four prisoners from a political party who were sentenced to death for burning a bus during a protest and killing three women students. The court, while commuting their sentence, invoked the ‘doctrine of diminished responsibility’ and reasoned that those gripped by mob frenzy were not fully cognisant of the situation around them. While invoking any ground to commute a death sentence to life is welcome, the impression is inescapable that such relief often comes at a very late stage and only to those with the means to pursue legal remedies till the very end. When a judicial system that is seen as favouring the influential resorts to capital punishment, it will be vulnerable to the charge of socio-economic bias. Law and society, therefore, will be better served if the death penalty itself is abolished. These statistics must reinforce the larger moral argument against the state taking the life of a human being — any human being — as punishment.

Bangladesh’s battle for its future

The murders of liberals, bloggers, secularists and LGBT rights activists continue in Bangladesh. Over the past few weeks, a Hindu tailor, a gay rights advocate, a social media activist and a Sufi leader have been killed by suspected Islamists. The exact identity of the killers is widely contested. The Jamaat-e-Islami, the leading Islamist group, denies any link to the attacks — while many disagree with the breezy attempt to connect the Islamic State to the killings. Any which way you look at them, the murders cannot be seen in isolation from the ongoing war crimes trials of those who collaborated with the Pakistan Army during the Liberation War of 1971, causing countless deaths in the months leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. The attacks are but indications of a battle being waged between two sets of ideas on the country’s past, present and future. The first set imagines Bangladesh as a nation born of a struggle against the linguistic and cultural hegemony of what was then West Pakistan, and founded on a commitment to liberal, secular and civic values. The second imagines the country not in civic terms but as yet another outpost of political Islam. The activists have bravely taken positions on the front lines of this struggle against Islamists. It is this stark contrast that has rendered the rights activists sworn enemies of the Islamists.

The sharp battle lines, drawn ideologically and on the streets, go back to the Shahbag protests in 2013 seeking capital punishment for Jamaat-e-Islami leader Abdul Quader Molla and a ban on the organisation. To the ruling Awami League’s credit, the government set up the war crimes trials despite threats from the Islamists. It also sought thus to delegitimise groups such as the Jamaat-e-Islami that had harboured war criminals and allied themselves with powerful political forces, including successive military dictatorships and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, to stall the transition of Bangladesh into a progressive, democratic nation state. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has tended to limit her government’s role to prosecuting the trials. The government has failed to bring the assassins of bloggers, rights activists and others to justice — it perhaps fears a greater blowback from the Islamists if it does so. As crucially, it is refusing to articulate the political narrative connecting the attacks to the war crimes trials. This abdication exposes ordinary citizens as the first line of defence against extremism. Ms. Hasina will be jeopardising Bangladesh’s future as a democratic nation if her government does not rally on the side of the rights activists against the Islamists. Already, groups such as the Islamic State seem to be emboldened by the actions of the Islamists and have publicly sought to deepen their base in Bangladesh. The longer the government remains on the sidelines in this fight for secularism, the stronger the forces of extremism will become.

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