When there has been a global call in democracies of the world to abolish death sentence thoroughly, capital punishment prescribed even for crimes where loss of life is not involved is worrisome inde
Shamim A. Zahedy
In the wake of street demonstrations and condemnation across Bangladesh over the sad and disturbing Noakhali incident involving a woman being stripped and beaten up on camera by some rowdy young men that came hot on the heels of Sylhet MC College incident where a young woman was gang-raped by some male students of that college, the government is all but certain to amend the existing law and include provision for capital punishment to offenders of rape.
This step is only to prove the old cliché phrase that ‘death sentence does not offer remedy’, to put an end to heinous crimes in society.
When there has been a global call in democracies of the world to abolish death sentence thoroughly, capital punishment prescribed even for crimes where loss of life is not involved is worrisome indeed, more so in a country such as Bangladesh where only the other day police came under fire for using unauthorised force to record confessional statements from suspects standing accused of rape and murder of a schoolgirl, who popped up alive in Narayanganj of late.
In another recent example, also in Narayanganj, a young man presumed to have been murdered after false confession in court, was found to be alive. The man was taken to be dead after one witness told the court of law that she herself had seen the ‘gruesome murder’.
In the cruelest example of recent human errors in Bangladesh’s judicial system, a senior judicial magistrate in Faridpur sought unconditional apology after he was summoned by High Court for not following the rules in recording the confessional statements of three accused in a school student murder case. The worst part was that the three confessional statements recorded by the judge were found to be verbatim!
The aim of jurisprudence is to make sure that no innocent person gets punished for crimes he or she has not committed. It is the duty of the judicial system to ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice, meaning that an innocent person is not convicted and punished mistakenly. That is why it is often said, ‘let hundred guilty be acquitted but one innocent should not be convicted’.
The rights group Amnesty International says “every day people are executed and sentenced to death by the state as punishment for a variety of crimes – sometimes for acts that should not be criminalized. In some countries, it can be for drug-related offences, in others it is reserved for terrorism-related acts and murder.”
The government’s logic behind the highest punishment or death sentence for mitigating crimes is not plausible. The highest punishment provision for murder is capital punishment in Bangladesh. Has this provision succeeded in preventing the killers from committing homicide? According to media reports, quite high figures such as 3,988 people were murdered in the country in 2013, 4,514 persons in 2014, 4,036 in 2015 and 3,591 people were murdered in 2016.
This particular Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000, which allows life term in jail for rapists, is the predecessor of Women and Children Oppression Prevention Act 1995, which was repealed to make room for more stringent provisions.
Despite severe provisions, sexual violence against women in society has not abated. According to a local human rights organization, Ain-o-Salish Kendra (ASK), the year 2019 saw nearly double the number of rape incidents compared to 2018. Some 1413 woman were raped and gang-raped throughout the year across Bangladesh as opposed to 732 in 2018 and 818 in 2017.
ASK also said at least 975 rape cases including 208 gang-rapes were reported between January and September of 2020.
Now that the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 is set to undergo amendments to allow provision for capital punishment for rapists, would it offer any change?
Referring to the data from the government’s One Stop Crisis Centre, Amnesty International has said between 2001 and July 2020, only 3.56 percent of cases filed under the Prevention of Oppression Against Women and Children Act 2000 have resulted in a court judgment and only 0.37 percent of cases have ended with convictions.
There is no dearth of laws and acts in Bangladesh but the enforcement has been mired in corruption, mismanagement and oversight. Rape incidents, like any other crimes in Bangladesh, are the results of overall culture of impunity, delay in delivery of judgment and grafts in the whole justice and political systems.
All the impediments to fair justice such as the culture of impunity, long delays in court cases and grafts in the bureaucracy are fairly linked to lack of fair political system in Bangladesh. The whole political system has to be fair to get rid of the vices eating into all the potentials of Bangladesh.
Wrongdoers here believe, and quite rightly, that if they have money and ties with politics, they will be able get away with their crimes. The law enforcers are also not keen to catch the politically affiliated criminals unless and until the incident draws huge news media attention.
The faulty political system creates the culture of impunity: all the people with political links get scot-free while the law takes its own course only against the people who are paupers and without power.
Thus stringent laws with provision for death sentence will not work but the establishment of rule of law and good governance will naturally drive away most of the crimes and for which political decision has to be made now.
Death penalty is irreversible and cannot be taken back in the event of mistake in judgments and that capital punishment does not deter crimes. However, the cruelest aspect of death sentence is that it is often used to silence dissents.
At the end of 2019, 106 states, which account for more than half the world’s countries, completely abolished capital punishment, providing laws that do not allow death penalty for any crime.
According to Amnesty International, the watchdog recorded at least 2,307 death sentences in 56 countries in 2019, a slight decrease from the total of 2,531 reported in 2018.
In 2019, most known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt.
Back in Bangladesh, the awareness about the abolition of death penalty is not vividly visible both in political and social discourses.
In the early 1990s, however, a television soap opera called ‘Kothao Keu Nei’ by Bangladesh’s most enduring storyteller Humayun Ahmed ‘forced young people to take to the streets’ in capital Dhaka and other places demanding reversal of the death sentence wrongly awarded to the protagonist, Baker Bhai, a loving and carefree vagrant who like Robin Hood always comes to the aid of the people in the neighbourhood selflessly.
Young men and women in demonstrations across Bangladesh urged the writer to halt the hanging of fictional character Baker Bhai. Nonetheless, the storyline was not changed and Baker Bhai was executed finally, prompting a pall of gloom.
May be, Humayun Ahmed had his objectives in his mind to instill kindness and compassion in the psyche of his audience.
As Baker Bhai’s death sentence was also upheld in the Supreme Court and the mercy petition to the president, the last resort, was rejected, Muna, one of the central characters who falls in love with the lovable rascal at the end, says: “I wish there could be no death sentence in any country of the world. At some points innocent people may be wrongly executed as long as this provision of capital punishment exists. If this provision goes, at least innocent people will not be hanged mistakenly … may be they will be languishing in jails forever, but not the death they will be meeting for wrong reasons.”
“But who listens to this poor, ordinary woman like me? If I were a big political leader, writer, poet, people might listen to me,” Muna winds up in an emotion choked voice.
The writer is the Executive Editor of The Independent. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org