In 1981 in Bangladesh, twelve senior army personnel were hanged for the assassination of their President Ziaur Rahman. Twenty years later, a Parliamentary Committee in Dhaka concluded that the trial of the accused killers had not been conducted in accordance with the law. A member of the Parliamentary Committee told the BBC that the committee had concluded that they had been sentenced to death without valid evidence. He said that the families of the twelve hanged men would be compensated.
However infrequently the death penalty is awarded, one always finds it shocking. Medieval practices of public lynching, stoning to death, guillotining, public hanging belong to the same category as the death penalty by lethal injection or electrification. In all cases, the 'guilty' person paid for some crime with his very life.
Thankfully today, in non-feudal, civilized societies the legal system is increasingly concerned with rehabilitation rather than revenge. Our societies are troubled by a serious question: can a murderer, a pedophile, a rapist or a serial killer ever be rehabilitated? While many view the death penalty as a harsh and irrevocable step, they also hold that a life sentence would do the needful: it would protect society from the consequences of the criminal's destructive acts. Even if rehabilitation fails to bring about a paradigm shift in the criminal's way of seeing the world, society is at least safe while the attempt is on. On the other hand, the death penalty, as in Ziaur Rehman's case, is often woefully deficient since it rests on inadequate evidence. How can we return to life somebody whose life has been taken by error?
But we are then confronted by other troublesome cases where guilty persons walk out free. Should Hitler's confidante, Albert Speer, have been released from Spandau prison after he had completed serving his twenty-year sentence? As a high-ranking official of the Nazi party that led Germany during Hitler's regime, could twenty years be enough punishment for his involvement in the deaths of over six million Jewish men, women and children? Did he deserve the joys of liberty and fresh air even after having served twenty years at Spandau? One justice system released a guilty Speer, while another sent to death twelve innocent army officials.
Since our courts of law can err, can such an important power be granted to them, the power to take away somebody's life?
The spiritual world, like the liberal world, regards life as precious and sacred. While the spiritually inclined person sees a criminal not as 'evil' but as 'erroneous' or 'ignorant', the liberal world, on its part, is inclined to concern itself with two things, one his rehabilitation and two, the protection of the free world from his future criminal acts.
Mother Teresa once recounted an incident she was party to in London. ' One night in London I went out visiting people with the Sisters. We saw a young boy with long hair, sitting in the street with others. I spoke to him and I said, 'You shouldn't be here, you should be with your mother and father, this is not the place for you.' The young boy said, 'My mother does not want me. Each time I go home she pushes me out, because she can't bear my long hair.' We passed on. When I came back, he was lying flat on the ground. He had overdosed himself. We had to take him to the hospital. I could not help but reflect, 'Here was a child hungry for home, and his mother had no time for him. This is great poverty. This is where you and I must make this world a better place.'
The mother rejected him because his hair annoyed her, and the child, unable to handle rejection, attempted suicide. It is easy to reject and punish a child for straying from our ideals. But rejection scars the victim and the society sooner or later.
Mother Teresa has called this 'poverty'. For Mother Teresa, loneliness and an unforgiving heart are signs of the greatest poverty.
The desire to rehabilitate through compassion requires spiritual understanding. Daughters are killed the moment their sex is known in some villages; teenagers sometimes jump from tall buildings because they failed in the exams and let their parents down. Rejection is dangerous, what's more, it is tragic. Crimes against both oneself and society are rooted in rejection.
In the public realm, too, the facts are horrifying. In the USA according to the 1992 statistics the total population comprises of 83.5% White Americans and 12.4% Black Americans. The statistics of those on Death Row are as follows: White Americans: 46.27%, Black Americans: 42.89%. Evidently, Blacks on Death Row are present in disproportionate high numbers when one looks at their total population. Do American juries award the death penalty more easily to Blacks than to Whites for similar crimes? We reject somebody who is not like us. We then condemn him for being different.
Biases apart, the question is, can we ever be a hundred percent sure that we know all the facts when we sit down to judge another? Facts are always being uncovered as time goes by. Can the death penalty then ever be awarded? Not only the twelve condemned men but even their families suffered the consequences of a grave miscarriage of justice. They went through both public ignominy and deprivation. No matter how hard the government tries it cannot untangle this knot, it just cannot bring a man back to life. And there is no compensation adequate for a life deliberately cut short.
Similarly, how can we condemn a child for growing long hair or failing in the exams? By rejecting we destroy the very life we need to nurture and protect from destruction. Having destroyed his self-esteem we push him towards crime or suicide.
To encourage and to be compassionate rather than to frighten and terrorize is required not only by parents and teachers but even by justice systems all over the world. To condemn and reject somebody when one's own knowledge is limited or shallow is to be unjust. Rather, a compassionate analysis would help us have a society of well-adjusted human beings. Social problems begin first as domestic problems. An unforgiving climate at home breeds tomorrow's criminals. We have all been forgiven and gently motivated; we must all learn to forgive and rehabilitate.
Civilized nations must protect the innocent from the dangerous and also work towards the rehabilitation of the criminal in positive ways. The introduction of Vipasana at Tihar Jail in Delhi, by Kiran Bedi, threw up miraculous results: hardened criminals admitted that they changed after they went deep inside themselves and reached their true selves. Rehabilitation, according to Dr Bedi, is always possible. If that is accepted, can we condemn anybody to death?