Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Death penalty in South Asia-Killing Kasab

IT IS hard to feel particularly sorry at the hanging of Ajmal Kasab, in Pune, India, early on November 21st. He was the sole surviving gunman from a 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, in which Pakistani infiltrators killed at least 166 people during a prolonged and traumatising rampage in the city. The assault on ordinary residents and tourists, at a busy train station, a Jewish centre and most notably a prominent hotel, was vicious, intended to spread terror and possibly to provoke a wider conflict between India and Pakistan. That the assailants probably had help from elements connected to Pakistan’s army or spy network made the assault all the worse.

Mr Kasab, who was 21 in November 2008, presumably expected to be killed during the abhorrent attack. Instead he was arrested, interrogated, tried and imprisoned fairly. Now he has been executed according to Indian law, which allows the use of the death penalty only in the “rarest of rare” cases. A majority of Indians almost certainly support the hanging in this case and probably back the death penalty in general. The timing seems to be related to the fourth anniversary of the attack, later this week, but is also because Mr Kasab had used up all possible legal appeals: the president of India, Pranab Mukherjee, recently rejected any chance of a pardon.

Yet despite all this, his execution, and thus an end to a prolonged unofficial moratorium on the use of the death penalty in India, should be deeply lamented. In India, and the region, individual human life is too often given an extremely low value. By upholding a ban on the death penalty, even in the toughest of cases, India had previously been promoting respect for the value of a life. An alternative existed: Mr Kasab could have been punished severely by keeping him in prison for the rest of his days—just as Norway will keep its vile terrorist attacker, Anders Breivik, locked up. That would arguably have been a greater deterrent than hanging a man who had planned anyway to die.

Curiously, too, this week has seen a spate of executions in South Asia. On November 15th Pakistan brought an end to its own four-year unofficial moratorium on the death penalty, by hanging a soldier convicted of murder. And on November 19th Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, agreed to let the execution of 16 convicts on death row. Thus Mr Karzai, too, has ended a self-imposed moratorium on the use of the death penalty in Afghanistan.

All this is troubling, even if it is hard to believe the changes were somehow co-ordinated. First, most obviously, these hangings make it more likely that further executions could follow. India for example has many inmates on death row, and often they remain there for a long time before receiving a pardon. It is possible that one hanging could now lead to others.

Second, by virtue of its size and international stature, India should be helping to set norms that smaller neighbours will follow. Hangings elsewhere in the region may follow. Sri Lanka, whose government has repressive tendencies, has preserved its own unofficial moratorium on executions. But this, too, could be about to end. And in Bangladesh, where a war-crimes trial is under way, the government is eager to see the execution of political opponents who are accused of dreadful atrocities in the 1971 independence war. That trial has looked increasingly flawed, yet may conclude with death sentences for at least some defendants. For anyone who had hoped that India could help to discourage Bangladesh from carrying out its hangings, the execution of Mr Kasab, makes such an intervention less likely.

Third, and related, is a suspicion that at least some hangings may be conducted for political rather than only judicial ends. It may be only a coincidence that elections loom shortly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Mr Karzai in Kabul, and Asif Ali Zardari in Islamabad, may have calculated that letting executions go ahead is a politically popular step to take. Similarly Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, may believe that hanging the leaders of an Islamist opposition party, ahead of general elections in 2013, could bring political gain if that weakens a small but significant electoral opponent.

South Asia despite the latest developments remains far less enthusiastic over executions than, say, authoritarian China. Yet if this marks a return to executions in the region, and thus a shift away from a more liberal position, then so much the worse.By Banyan for The Economist (Picture credit: AFP)

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