The Blog

India: Death Penalty Is Not a Quick Fix Solution to Serious Crime

The four Delhi gang rape convicts are likely to be sentenced to death for raping and killing a 23 year old woman... Hanging the four Delhi rapists might satisfy the conscience of the nation, but it does nothing to improve the lot of women in India.

The four Delhi gang rape convicts are likely to be sentenced to death for raping and killing a 23 year old woman. President Pranab Mukherjee said the incident "shook the conscience of the whole nation." As horrific as the crime was, executing the rapists will not prevent similar crimes recurring.

Women's rights groups in India have opposed the death penalty for rape, saying that it is "neither a deterrent nor an effective or ethical response to these acts of sexual violence." The recent reform of rape laws is a positive step but has its limitations, for instance in not criminalising marital rape. The rights groups call for legal reform to establish gradations of sexual offences and improve the conviction rate. Perhaps most importantly, the Indian government needs to address gender and social inequality in society - equality in law will lead to greater rights and respect for all in society. This requires a significant overhaul of legal, economic and social structures. Hanging the four Delhi rapists might satisfy the conscience of the nation, but it does nothing to improve the lot of women in India.

In the past eight years, India has executed two people: Ajmal Kasab (from Pakistan) for the 2008 Mumbai attacks and Afzal Guru (from Kashmir) for the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Devinder Pal Singh Bhullar, an alleged Sikh separatist, faces imminent execution for the 1993 car bomb in Delhi. This gives the impression that when the root cause of the crime is complex and the solution requires a long term strategy, the Indian authorities turn to the guillotine for a quick-fix solution. The execution of a Pakistani will not resolve the territorial dispute with Pakistan. The execution of a Kashmiri will not address the grievances of Kashmiris. And executing a Sikh will do nothing to improve relations with Sikhs in the Punjab. One might expect the Indian public to be angry at their government's unwillingness to prevent crimes from happening, rather than calling for more severe punishments for the perpetrators once a crime has been committed.

India is, of course, not the only country that needs to address sexual violence and terrorism. European countries also have difficulty tackling both and some of the underlying issues are similar. Like India, the UK too has some men with a sense of entitlement to women which, when combined with victims reluctance to report the offence and low conviction rates, leads to a disturbingly high frequency of sexual offences. The UK has also been the victim of terrorist attacks. But the vast majority of the British public does not demand the death penalty to tackle these problems, and it is something that is unthinkable for the British government.

The reasons to oppose the death penalty are well known: (1) the death penalty is not more of a deterrent than life imprisonment, (2) innocent people may be executed in cases of miscarriage of justice, (3) executing humans is wrong in principle, and (4) spotlight on the death penalty distracts from addressing the root cause of serious crimes.

There is no evidence to indicate that the death penalty is an effective deterrent. On the contrary, research by William Bowers and Glenn Pierce has suggested that the death penalty may have the opposite effect - in their study, homicides in New York increased after highly publicised executions. Statistics confirm that the death penalty is not a deterrent. Punishment for crimes is not only for deterrence but also retribution. But executions are a form of vengeance not retribution.

It is of concern that although the Supreme Court of India has ruled that the death penalty should only be imposed in "the rarest of rare cases", there are almost 500 convicts currently on death row awaiting their fate. In the 2009 Bariyar case, the Supreme Court of India admitted that at least seven sentences of death had been awarded per incuriam (in error). This prompted 14 retired judges to write to the President informing him that since 1996, 15 people had erroneously been awarded the death sentence and two of them had by then been hanged. The judges requested the President to commute the sentences of the remaining 13 to life imprisonment. These concerns regarding the fairness of trials make the case for abolition all the more compelling.

India has voted against the UN moratorium on the death penalty and it remains amongst a minority of countries to continue to carry out executions. The death penalty has been abolished in law or practice in 130 out of 192 UN member states. India's recent resumption of executions has been condemned by rights groups such as Amnesty International, ADPAN and Human Rights Watch.

Indians understandably do not want to see a repeat of the horrors of the Delhi gang rape or the Mumbai terror attacks. To this end, they should call on their government to address the root cause of these crimes and resist the governments attempt to appease them by providing for the death sentence to the perpetrators.

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