Legal Pad

Hang Death Penalty

Death penalty – A historical and international perspective:

Around 300 BCE, the pacifist Emperor Ashoka proposed alternative punishments to the death penalty in India., but did not ban it.

In Japan the death penalty was abolished in 818 AD by Emperor Saga and this lasted for 338 years until 1156.

Between the 9th and the 13th centuries, the Ukraine based Kiev Rus mostly replaced the death penalty with banishment, or payment of a fine.

China which today executes more people than the rest of the world put together once had a brief no death penalty phase between 1747 and 1759.

The Grand Duke Leopold II of Habsburg was so influenced by Cesare Beccaria’s 1764 work Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments), that he abolished the death penalty in the then-independent Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

In the US – a country where guns are freely available and where well over 20,000 persons have been killed by the state since 1608 –Illinois state banned the death penalty in 2011, Oregon adopted a moratorium on executions, Maryland and Connecticut are close to banning them, and California is likely to put a referendum on the state ballot in November that could abolish the death penalty.

While Iran routinely executes people for crimes committed as children, the US Supreme Court stopped this as a cruel and unusual punishment in 2005 in its judgement in Roper v Simmons.

The 2008 Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment commissioned the most comprehensive study of the US system. The report, which consolidated the results of 14 other studies and examined more cases than previous analyses, concluded that murderers sentenced to death will end up costing taxpayers three times more over the length of the case than if they were sentenced to life without parole.In a case that is eligible for the death penalty but where it’s not sought and the sentence is life without the possibility of parole, the average cost to the US taxpayer is $1.1m. But where a death sentence is given, the case in its entirety will cost an average of $3m.

By contrast, the cost of a death penalty-eligible case where death is sought but not awarded by the court is $1.8m.

In a most recent decision a court in the US has banned the import of Sodium Thiopental into the US on ‘health considerations’ of the person about to be executed. There is not enough drug now in the country to carryout executions. The judge must have read Orwell’s moving essay ‘A Hanging‘.


Image links to source

The Indian Scenario:

Chandigarh Sessions Court’s instruction to the SP of Patiala Central Jail to implement the scheduled execution of Balwant Singh Rajoana on 31 March has revived the debate on the death penalty in India. Rajoana was the back-up human bomb when Punjab CM Beant Singh was assassinated in 1995. Rajoana never appealed for mercy, but clemency petitions filed by the Punjab government and by Sikh groups who consider the unrepentant Rajoana a living martyr to the cause of the Sikh nation have led to a further postponement of the execution.

While some political groups bay for the blood of convicts they dislike (Afzal Guru and Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Kasab), and others ask for clemency for those they support (Sri Lankan nationals convicted in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case — Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan), on 29 March the Supreme Court of India took notice of death row politics in the country and asked some uncomfortable questions as regards clemency petitions and procedures. This is of great significance as there are currently 18 clemency petitions with the President’s office and over 300 people are on death row in the country.

In India, the crimes of murder, gang robbery with murder, abetting the suicide of a child or insane person, waging war against the nation, abetting mutiny by a member of the armed forces and large scale narcotics trafficking are eligible for the death penalty. The SC which in 1983 instructed that the death penalty should be imposed only in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases has recently recommended the death penalty for police officials who stage false encounter killings and for those who commit honor killings.

Is the death penalty a moral abomination or an effective deterrent of violent crime? Is it better for society to incarcerate a dangerous criminal forever, or is the ultimate punishment more justified for heinous crimes? How safe are death penalty convictions?

Providing a backdrop to the death penalty debate in India was Amnesty International’s latest report on the global use of the death penalty in 2011. The report recorded the positive trend that only 20 of the world’s 198 countries carried out an execution in 2011; 96 countries did away with it while 34 countries have been abolitionist in practice by observing official or unofficial moratoria. India has been abolitionist — the last execution took place in 2004.

From a distance, it appears that the world is slowly moving towards a more civilised system of criminal justice. In 1971 the UN General Assembly called for a restriction on the number of offences for which the death penalty could be imposed, with a view to abolishing it altogether. This will of the global community was reiterated in 1977 and again in 2010 in UN Resolutions with ever growing support from member nations. Today, no country can become a member of the Council of Europe or of the European Union unless they abandon the death penalty. Some African countries like Angola, Djibouti, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa have abolished capital punishment. Gabon is the latest to join their ranks.

From close, the picture is less attractive. India, along with the US, Saudi Arabia and China, did not support the UN resolutions and more than 60 per cent of the world’s population today lives in regimes where the death penalty is still legal — 18,750 people remain under sentence of death worldwide, and at least 676 people were executed in the year. These figures exclude the statistics for China which keeps executions secret, but is believed to execute thousands of people every year. A sharp rise in the use of the death penalty was noted specially in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, who along with the US and China are the world’s top executioners.

Despite its wide spread use, can the death penalty ever be justified?

Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that moral Magna Carta which sets universal standards for the global civilisation and in whose formulation India played an important role, affirms: No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The infliction of death as punishment is indeed a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It is in the spirit of retribution, not rehabilitation and militates against modern standards of justice.

From flaying alive to boiling in oil to the executioner’s axe, from the hangman’s noose to the lethal injection, the death penalty has seen many barbarous refinements, but has only inflicted pointless pain where a less severe punishment could have achieved the same purpose. As Victor Hugo pointed out, it is irrevocable, irreparable and indissoluble and hence has no place in human law. In Franz Kafka’s nameless Penal Colony the death machine kills the guard himself in the name of justice, in the same way that every death penalty kills our humanity and brutalises our society.

The time has come to hang the death penalty, not humans.


– ‘Barbarous refinements’ is Camus’ phrase.

– The phrase ‘inflicted pointless pain where a less severe punishment could have achieved the same purpose’ is from the Furman v Geogia judgement.

Editor’s note
: A part of this article first appeared in The Postnoon.

About the author

Babu Gogineni


  • The purpose of any punishment should be deterrence to would-be offenders. If not death penalty, then what other equally deterrent punishment? What about the rights of the victims and their families? I am disappointed with this article. It is lop-sided, and the author does not come up with good alternative ideas for preventing serious crime.

    • In the recent times, new types of criminals have emerged viz terrorists, suicide bombers etc. How one to deal with when such elements are captured? Holding them in prison for long increases the risk of hostage taking by other such elements. This results in a catch 22 situation – risk the lives of innocent or release these elements to perpetuate their terrorist acts further. This has happened at least in one case – IA hijacking to Kathmandu when GOI was forced release a captured terrorist. Incidentally, this released terrorist was sentenced to death in Pakistan but not yet enforced.

        • humanists here are just expressing their opinions and yeah its known fact that death penalty doesn’t deter the terrorists because they are already prepared to die for their cause and instead terrorists are considered martyrs and it is used as proof of state’s atrocities

      • Those are problems that require better policing and prison security, rather than demanding speedy execution of convicts as a solution. Pending an improvement in policing and prison facilities, the risk hostage-taking and other attempts to free death-row convicts will still remain, and perhaps be perpetrated with a greater sense of urgency knowing that a schedule of punishment will be followed. Taking a facile view that capital punishment will vacuum-clean the problem, detracts from the seriousness which questions like improvement of national security measures deserve.

        Human rights advocates are not all armchair activists and they include a fair amount of people who have themselves put their life in the line. To class, say the author of this article as an ‘armchair intellectual’, will be an unfair characterization to say the least. This video and this one too should show why. Ceding all space in this debate to national security hawks has its downsides.

  • The article states facts about existence and abolishment of death penalty and says that methods of executions are getting refined and finally arriving at a conclusion we should abolish death penalty. The conclusion is just an opinion and not based on the right analysis around how death penalty acts as a deterrent to crime and a justification for families of victims.

    There are brief flashes of right questions – “Is the death penalty a moral abomination or an effective deterrent of violent crime? Is it better for society to incarcerate a dangerous criminal forever, or is the ultimate punishment more justified for heinous crimes? How safe are death penalty convictions?” But they are not analyzed in detail at all.

  • The effectiveness of deterrence is a question that is empirically addressable and there are studies in US states which claim to show that capital punishment has no demonstrable effect in deterring violent crime. A caveat here is that these studies here have been cited by an organization that is not exactly ideologically neutral on this issue, the NCADP, which nevertheless offers useful resources in this debate, like thispage on misconceptions about the death penalty. It would be nice to have statistics to support the claim that societies abolishing the death penalty do not immediately or in the long-term face a rise in violent crime.

    The very presence of capital punishment in the statute books tends to vitiate political discourse with a lot of ‘baying for blood’ rhetoric, as was demonstrated in the Yao Jiaxin case in China recently. Another thing to be mindful of is how ‘hang the guilty’ is used as indiscriminate rhetoric by anti-corruption crusaders and how this needs to be called out on, lest we all succumb to the lure of war-cry vocabulary.

      • Even in cases of religiously motivated terror crimes, it is not always an open-shut case, because earthier considerations besides the hawks’ security concerns and the doves’ bleeding-heart humanism come into play. For instance, the sole perpetrator of 26/11 now in a Mumbai jail, counts as evidence and the sole source of corroboration of any further links that may surface between the act of terror and the country of its origin. In this case, an execution that plays to gallery may not make strategic sense, and may count as a self-defeating destruction of evidence, if considered in this detached clinical manner.

        How much of its commitment to human rights a society is willing to compromise on citing wartime compulsions, is a question that different societies resolve in different ways. There are legitimate restrictions on civil rights which can be argued for, citing the safety of citizens at large (for example, as discussed in the linked video here). In the refusal of the Norwegian state and society to reinstate the death penalty in the wake of the Utoya shooting incident, we see an illustration of how a society may choose to demonstrate its uncompromising stance on a fundamental human right, here, the right to life, as their way of responding to a kind of terror which would have succeeded had these citizens wavered on these values. This conception of ‘closure’ is not one of retribution but more a reassertion of resilience of that which was attacked.

  • Death Penalty Abolitionists frequently focus on it’s ineffectiveness in deterring violent crime and the immoral nature of the society in executing it’s citizens, but conveniently leave out “closure”. It is very much human to carry vengeance, scorn and hatred on the perpetrator of the crime by the Victim or by their families, irrespective of the society / freethinker’s take. I for one would not demand death penalty, but to expect the same from families of victims who are unable to seek “closure” (in countries which have “Death Penalties” for crimes in their penal code) is a road I would not venture.

    There is no conclusive evidence that “extremely violent” crimes do not take place on societies that have abolished the “Death Penalty”. The victims of those crimes had invariably suffered pain and violence across societies, irrespective of the influence of the liberal intelligentsia in rewriting their penal code.

    The next thing that I would like to put forth is that, it is not a “dishonorable” act to expect execution of a violent offender. Millions of Ordinary Americans and families of 9/11 victims, had come to an emotional closure following the death of Osama Bin Laden. I hope a similar closure and peace to victims of Mumbai Attacks (those who expect him to be executed), when Kasab is sent to the gallows after a civilian trial.

    But what worries me, is that there is no hesitation or contemplation, when prescribing a personal moral code and standard to the larger society. People who are pro choice and demand a “ban” on abortions do so, because they “feel”, life is sacred and precious.

    Liberals don’t buy that argument and champion the “choice” of the individual and their judgement in deciding that procedure. But surprisingly, I find many in the liberal camp in earnest to throw their weight on the rest of the population, when they come to a conclusion that their “near and dear” standards for empathy, is ought to be the norm in the Penal code. I would expect the violin to be played furiously by them, when Kasab’s sentence is carried out in India.

    • I don’t think that’s a valid comparison at all. In one case, a human being isn’t being killed, whereas in the other a human being is killed. There can be arguments for the death penalty, but yours doesn’t sound valid.

      • You missed my point by a mile, my comparison was to showcase the prescription of personal beliefs and standards onto the larger society without much contemplation by liberals.

        It is very futile to argue with a pro-life advocate that it is just a fetus, they might not understand or have an altogether unscientific view of humanity or life per se. Whatever be the case I don’t give a fig for their beliefs; let them endure unwanted pregnancies. But it becomes a problem to me and people around me, when they try to advocate a myopic “ban” on abortions for everyone in the society.

        As many had pointed out in the comment section, “retribution” was not mentioned even once in the above post.

        • You missed my point by a mile, my comparison was to showcase the prescription of personal beliefs and standards onto the larger society without much contemplation by liberals.

          Who are these liberals, and what kind of contemplation you have in mind?

      • //There can be arguments for the death penalty, but yours doesn’t sound valid.

        I have to say no thanks.

        I had just critiqued the article on its blindside : retribution and closure, that have been blatantly missed out.

        Let me play your game, do you think they are ought to be dismissed so casually ?

          • Thanks for acknowledging it albeit subtly. The comment section is for the article that is published and I had provided the critique.

            However, I would participate in your discussion on “closure” on Facebook or elsewhere where it is the focal point. I don’t think this page which avoids it, is a worthy spot or deserves my time.

          • Saravanan,

            I agree, the article isn’t wide ranging and doesn’t cover all angles (towards the end it does talk about retribution and how morality has changed to abhor certain forms of it). But your comment wasn’t just about the article but also a sweeping generalization of liberals (many of us here would fall under that label).

    • Also, I’m interested in the reasoning behind the closure argument.

      In movies, when the bad guy dies swiftly, I feel somewhat dissatisfied and think “for all the harm they caused, they just die without much pain?. Why can’t they get be tortured for a while before being killed?” I’m certain that that’s not an uncommon feeling.

      So now the questions are:

      1. if closure is required, why find painless ways to implement the death penalty? Shouldn’t it be done in the most painful way? And probably kill the guilty over a few months instead of in a few seconds?
      2. doesn’t the closure argument give legitimacy to things like Sharia law (ex: cutting off the hands of a thief)?
      • Apropos #1, a moderate supporter of the death penalty may well argue that a ‘painless execution’ is the most plausible tradeoff between the imperative of retributive justice and the imperative of respecting the sanctity of the human person even in the vilest instances. As for the proportionality of punishment to the pain caused by the perpetrator, a more humane solution to bring about such proportionality would be to prolong the duration of punishment rather than increase its physical harshness. Ram Jethmalani, not exactly a dove, suggests an interminable-seeming hellish stay in an Indian jail as a more fitting punishment for Kasab than swift martyrdom.

        In a broader context, the quality and quantity of ‘punishment’ can be studied in a classical Utilitarian framework. Bentham listed intensity, duration, certainty and remoteness as the variables defining the degree of pleasure , or pain. Medieval conceptions of punishment seem to have had an inordinate obsession with intensity. Life imprisonment of lengthy duration, no certainty of eventual release and remoteness from most forms of fulfilling endeavour, has found favour as the punishment of choice in many contemporary societies for the worst transgressions. Bentham’s yardstick can be a handy device to assess the ‘utility’ of a given punishment in terms of its effectiveness and also the sort of closure it provides.

      • On the ‘utility’ of cruelty in punishment, here’s Rebecca Newberger Goldsten quoting a 1764 pamphlet by Italian jurist Cesare Beccaria.

        As punishments become more cruel, the minds of men, which like fluids always adjust to the level of the objects that surround them, become hardened, and after a hundred years of cruel punishments, breaking on the wheel causes no more fear than imprisonment previously did. For a punishment to achieve its objective, it is only necessary that the harm that it inflicts outweighs the benefit that derives from the crime, and into this calculation ought to be factored the certainty of punishment and the loss of the good that the commission of the crime will produce. Everything beyond this is superfluous, and therefore tyrannical.

  • Superb article. So now criminals can kill how many ever people they want so that they can enjoy a happy ‘retired life’ in prison with no death sentence deterrence.

    • Superb logic. Criminals are rampant in all the countries which have abolished the death penalty.

  • It indeed it a good topic to debate on. I find it unfortunate that those who never ever have encountered a criminal, will decide whether the death penalty should be abolished. I too support the humanity even in punishments. But some crimes are beyond any mercy and so are some criminals. Moreover, if we talk about Utopian society, the death penalty abolition can still be justified, but not in the society we live in. Who among the supporters of the abolition has been a victim of a brutal rape? No one, I guess. If the criminals are human, and have their rights; the victims too are humans. I’d end up my comment with a Ghalib statement:”Dil Behlaneke Liye Khayal Acha Hai Ghalib.” In the present state of the society it is highly impractical to abolish death penalty…

  • vry gud topic 4 discussion.
    i feel dat criminals who commit serious crimes must first get painfull punishment n’ then should be hanged. provided tat no innocent man is accused or punished.In the present state of the society it is highly impractical to abolish death penalty…vry true

  • I don’t understand the study that said death row people cost 3m while life sentence costs 1.1 m. Could u explain why its so, if u know.

    And it may not be about deterrent or rehabilitation. The punishment is about making the criminal pay for what he did. The person probably destroyed a family and u r looking for rehabilitation for that person.
    That may not be right…

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