Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights puts it simply: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” The death penalty is the ultimate cruel punishment. Abolitionists tend to advance two main reasons why it must go: it does not deter crime; and, as justice systems around the world are flawed, there is more than a possibility that someone will be punished wrongly, and irrevocably. These are sound arguments, backed by statistics. But there is no more important strike against capital punishment than the sheer barbarity of taking another person's life even under sanction of law. There is no humane method of execution either. Death by hanging, lethal injection, electrocution, beheading, shooting are equally repugnant in their intent to take life, and in the violence they inflict on the condemned person. Proponents of the death penalty argue that this is the only way to compensate, or provide justice to, those affected by heinous crimes such as murder or terrorism. But an ‘eye for an eye' has no place in a modern, progressive criminal justice system. Internationally, there is an increasing trend towards abolition, with 96 countries doing away with it and 34 countries being abolitionist in practice by observing official or unofficial moratoria on executions. Each of the three United Nations resolutions calling for a moratorium has seen more countries backing it. On the other hand, China, the United States, Iran and other West Asian countries, and countries in South-East Asia buck the trend by frequently using the death penalty.
In India, there has been no execution since 2004 but that is poor consolation considering the swelling number of those who face the threat of execution. Indian courts handed down105 death sentences last year, according to Amnesty International. Earlier this week, President Pratibha Patil dismissed the clemency pleas of Murugan, Santhan, and Perarivalan, on death row for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi. The Home Ministry has advised President Patil to dismiss the plea of Afzal Guru, sentenced to death in the 2001 Parliament attack case. Without going into the possible motives for forefronting these mercy petitions at this politically difficult time for the United Progressive Alliance government, it must be recognised that both were monstrous crimes that deserved the harshest civilised punishment — an actual lifetime in prison rather than the seven to 14-year apology of a life sentence. It has been The Hindu's consistent stand for decades that India must make a clean break with a savage tradition by abolishing capital punishment. An immediate moratorium on executions should be the first step.