When the revenge hungry demand for their Pound of Flesh
I heard about Rizana Nafeek’s beheading on Twitter: a friend of a friend who saw a tweet by Aljazeera had retweeted the grim news. I’m finally getting the hang of twitter and it’s an amazing tool: a real-time, round clock the information sharing platform, a news network, almost; powered by hundreds of thousands of users from around the world. There is always the danger of misinformation but that’s the double-edged sword that is Twitter. The news of Rizana’s death shocked me. Living in a country which has been through one of the most brutal civil wars in history; the news of death, for us Sri Lankans doesn’t come by surprise. We are used to hearing incidents of claymore bombs, suicide attacks of murder etc… on the news on a daily basis. But somehow, the thought of this girl, just years older than myself, being publically executed, in a desert far from home disturbed me. After all, it’s the stark, abject poverty that is plaguing our communities that would have forced her to migrate for work. The story of Rizana has received a lot of attention on the media and particularly on social media, in the recent days and has also led to international outrage.
Capital Punishment Backgrounder
Although many nations have abolished capital punishment, over 60% of the world's population live in countries where executions take place, such as the China, India, the USA and Indonesia, the four most-populous countries in the world, which continue to apply the death penalty (although in India, Indonesia and in many US states it is rarely employed). Scholars point out that Islam on the whole accepts capital punishment as a deterrent to serious crimes. Mercy, however, is considered preferable, and in Sharia law the victim's family can choose to spare the life of the killer, which is not uncommon, although in Rizana’s case the family of the infant refused to do the same. Amnesty International says some 82 executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia last year. It is unknown as to how many of them were women or carried out by sword, but the majority of the condemned were foreigners, like Nafeek; and more often than not, from developing countries.
Executions are conducted in public, typically in town squares or near prisons. The condemned, as well as the executioner, typically wear white. The convict is blindfolded, handcuffed and often given a sedative. The heads of the condemned can sometimes roll several feet from the body. Bodies are sometimes put on crucifixes to be observed by the public as a warning. In one case in 2011, when an Indonesian maid was beheaded, her body was reportedly displayed by being hung from a helicopter.
Activists claim Rizana was a minor when she perpetrated the alleged crime. Executing those convicted of juvenile offence is not permitted under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi is party to. Furthermore,the Asian Human Rights Commission has confirmed that Rizana spoke only Tamil and the inquiry conducted by the Saudi police was in Arabic. The letter allegedly signed by Rizana is written in Arabic, a language that Rizana does not speak, read or write. Rizana later claimed the confession was extracted under duress and intimidation. There is a report that the translator provided to Rizana, at some stage of her trial or investigation, is a person from Karnataka, India, who speaks only Kannada and not Tamil.
On a recent blog post, I read the story of Mrs Nimalaraja, a Sri Lankan whose husband was killed by a 14 year old boy in the UK last summer. Following the sentencing of her husband’s assailant last week she said: “I am not angry any more. Before, I was angry because I lost my husband, but I am not angry now. The boy is a child and he didn’t mean to kill Nimal – it was an accident.” Just as accidents happen by the convicted, accidents may also happen within courts of law. However, unlike imprisonment, the mistake of a capital punishment sentence maybe too late to be corrected. A fact that is often overlooked is the torment the innocent family and friends of criminals must also go through in the time leading up to and during the execution. It is often very difficult for people to come to terms with the fact that their loved one could be guilty of a serious crime and no doubt even more difficult to come to terms with their death, let alone a public beheading.
Many argue that Capital Punishment is an effective deterrent to crime. And there is reason enough to believe that it is in fact an effective deterrence: What if Capital Punishment does deter crime? Should the state encourage the ‘eye for an eye’ kind of revengeful attitude that forms the very crux of Capital Punishment? Does it make murder any right, if it’s perpetrated by the state? Criminals deserve to be punished, but death penalty is a perversion of justice: and a mockery of human dignity.