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Questioning the death penalty

  • Published at 06:20 pm September 14th, 2018
There’s a better option
There’s a better option Photo: BIGSTOCK

Does this practice have a place in the modern world?

The conditions of detention of the people sentenced to death might differ from one country to another, but they affect us all. 

From solitary confinement in the United States, to the overcrowded prisons in African and Asian countries, the living conditions for the people sentenced are inhumane, and take away the dignity of individuals. 

Very often, death row prisoners are seen as humans society has stopped acknowledging, as if, even before being executed, they were not, not considered as human beings. In addition, death row prisoners have very little contact with their family and lawyers, owing to the very limited access. Therefore, the conditions of detention affect not only the person sentenced to death, but also the families, relatives, and legal team.

Looking into the nature of the penalty itself, the death penalty degrades everyone and everything associated with it. If misapplied in error, it cannot be remedied, and it is either absurdly naive or outrageously arrogant to assume that a judicial system cannot sentence anyone to death in error. 

The effort necessary to avoid such errors is expensive, if the goal is to remove a dangerous person from society, there are cheaper and easier ways to accomplish it. If the goal is to exact retribution, then we simply descend to the barbarism of earlier years.

Today, a big portion of the globe recognizes that this medieval practice has no place in the modern world. Up until 2016, about 104 countries have abolished the capital punishment, while 63 countries retained it, and that includes Bangladesh, according to Amnesty International. 

The judiciaries in many countries also discourage death penalty, but Bangladesh has not been able to come to that position yet. Sadly, it is yet to even consider introducing a guideline on what and how the sentencing system should be applied. 

As reported in the Amnesty International Global Report on Death Sentences and Executions 2017, the use of the death penalty in the Asia-Pacific region contravenes international law and standards. The report says that Bangladesh, Maldives, and Pakistan held people on death row who were below the age of 18 at the time of the crime for which they were convicted. 

The death penalty was also extensively used for offenses that did not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” to which the use of the death penalty must be restricted under international law. These included economic crimes, such as corruption, and drug-related offences -- 10 countries imposed death sentences and carried out executions to punish drug-related offences, making Asia-Pacific the region with the highest proportion of countries resorting to the death penalty for this type of offenses. 

The use of the mandatory death penalty and violations of the right to a fair trial remained of high concern in cases across the Asia-Pacific region. 

In India, the punishment for murder is usually life imprisonment, and the court has to reason a death penalty if they award that in a verdict. The death penalty there is usually awarded in extreme cases, such as to the perpetrators of the 2012 Delhi gang rape case. 

However, the situation works differently in Bangladesh. Here, the first option for sentencing in a murder case is the death penalty, and then life imprisonment. Our criminal justice system has no provision to reduce the death sentence by mitigating circumstances as the rights of the offender, but in practice, the judges have the power to determine the punishment to be administered for an offender. Therefore, in order to impose the sentence upon a perpetrator, if proved, there must be a guideline or rules as to how they can be imposed.

According to a report by Amnesty International, in Bangladesh for the year 2017, there were six reported executions, though the recorded number of death sentences reached over 243, and there were 1,465 people under sentence of death at the end of 2017. The said report also suggests that six men were hanged for murder in Bangladesh, three in April and three in November. At least 273 people, including four women, were sentenced to death, although Bangladeshi NGO Odhikar reported that a further 30 death sentences were imposed. 

Most death sentences recorded by Amnesty International were imposed for murder -- eight were imposed on men convicted by the International Crimes Tribunal, a Bangladeshi court established to investigate mass scale human rights violations committed during Bangladesh’s 1971 War of Independence -- 61 resulted from proceedings in special courts -- 54 were imposed without the defendant being present (in absentia). 

One man who was sentenced to death in 2017 for a 2009 murder was reported to be 20-years old at the time of conviction and sentence, making him below 18 at the time of the crime. Figures by the Prisons Department quoted in national media indicated that 1,456 people were under sentence of death, including 37 women.

However, in May 2015, the Bangladesh Supreme Court’s appellate division invalidated the mandatory death penalty for a specific form of aggravated murder. 

The appellate division confirmed a broad commonwealth consensus that the mandatory death penalty constitutes cruel and degrading punishment, citing jurisprudence from the United States, the English-speaking Caribbean, East Africa, Singapore and India. Although the decision followed the majority rule in the common law world, it is unlikely to transform Bangladesh’s capital punishment regime as it pertains to political crimes, such as the alleged war crimes carried out during the War of Independence with West Pakistan in 1971. 

Nonetheless, invalidation of the mandatory death penalty accords with international human rights norms and the independence of the judiciary in relation to criminal sentencing matters. We hope we shall be able to adopt the stand that advocates abolition of the death penalty as it essentially denotes barbarism and cruelty. 

Tashmiah Nuhiya Ahmed is Executive Editor, The New York Times, Bangladesh National Section.

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