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Capital Punishment

"If we are to abolish the death penalty, I should like to see the first step taken by my friends the murderers." ALPHONSE KARR. This sums up the emotions and opinions of most in support of the death sentence as an appropriate means of punishment for hardened criminals.

The basic purpose of criminal laws of any nation is the reformation of offenders and not retribution. But it is also the responsibility of the same state to protect the interests of the society at large and reiterate the society's faith in system of justice and capital punishment may be a means to this end.

From the study of history, we can see the prevalence of capital punishment since time immemorial, which includes death by hanging the offender in public, lethal injections, electrocution etc. The punishment has since been abolished by almost 139 countries of the world and amongst those who retain it, partially or wholly include countries in Asia including India, Pakistan and China, Latin America and Caribbean including Trinidad & Tobago and Cuba, North America including the USA. The reasons in favour of retaining capital punishment include safety (of society), deterrence and costs (of maintaining such criminals in the prisons). It can be seen that capital punishment is an appropriate penalty for many offenders who are perpetrators of the inhuman act of killing people with utmost impunity and disregard for human life.

The use of capital punishment is also viewed as a means of vengeance for the victims/ families of the victims of such barbaric acts. But this is far from being the aim of capital punishment as it is not always possible to hand out the sentence in every instance where the family/ the public at large believe that it is the most suitable punishment. A good example of the same is the Indian case involving Dara Singh who burned alive Mr. Graham Staines, an Australian missionary and his 8 year old son in 1999. The Supreme Court, dismissing the CBI's plea for death sentence said that the case did not fall within the framework of 'rarest of rare cases'.

In India, the legal framework for use of Capital punishment is laid down in the Indian Penal Code which permits use of capital punishment for murder in the 'rarest of rare cases'. Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code says that a person committing murder shall be punished with death, or [imprisonment for life] and shall also be liable to fine and Section 303 of the Indian Penal Code reads thus: Whoever, being under sentence of [imprisonment for life],commits murder, shall be punished with death. The sparing use of this sentence in the country is also in conformance with its obligation of judicious use of this penalty as a party to the International Covenant for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The country's judiciary uses this punishment upon an unequivocal establishment of the culpability of the offender/ offence in a case before it which, the court believes truly falls within the definition of the 'rarest of rare case'.

It is, however, interesting to note that despite the punishment being handed down by the courts, both the lower and appellate ones, not many have been carried out. According to official statistics, only 1 sentence, that of Dhananjoy Chatterji in 2004 was carried out since the execution of 'Auto' Shankar in 1995. And the execution in 2004 has been the last in the country. Death sentences have recently been handed down to rapist Umesh, where the Supreme Court confirmed the death penalty handed down by the Karnataka High Court and in the case of Surinder Koli, the serial killer who committed the heinous act of strangulating young girls and raping their dead bodies. Such cases defy the laws of basic human courtesy towards the dead and the death sentence is seen as a welcome punishment by many. Further to this, Ajmal Kasab, the lone surviving terrorist of the Mumbai attacks in 2008 is awaiting confirmation of death sentence from the Bombay High Court end of February. However, where warranted the state has to take suitable measures to carry out the sentence of the courts since implementation of the same is necessary to achieve the result so intended.

India has been hesitant in abolishing capital punishment and had even voted against a United Nations General Assembly resolution in 2007 calling for moratorium on the death penalty. This action is justified and even people's consensus is in favour of retaining the same with over 70% of the public voting for continuing the usage of death penalty as a means of punishment. Although nothing is more inhuman than taking away the human life, Capital punishment meted out to offenders who show no remorse for their barbaric actions may set an example in the society of the consequences of such an act and incite fear in the minds of anyone contemplating a similarly hideous act. The liberty of life of a person cannot be at the cost of another or in most cases several others in the society. Therefore, capital punishment meted out to serial killers, rapists and terrorists, who have no consideration for human life and are blinded by lust, power and misguided by unethical considerations restores the people's faith in the judicial system. However, the judiciary has an obligation to be prudent in the use of this sentence and act upon a well founded and unbiased judgement in its decisions. To conclude, every act performed in moderation always results in greater good for oneself and the people around.

Deepti Shriram