The abomination of the death penalty and the allure of corruption

“The bullet is mightier than the blade”: Moral relativism much?

“It is cold at six-forty in the morning on a March day in Paris, and seems even colder when a man is about to be executed by firing squad.”

Frederick Forsyth, The Day of the Jackal

The issue of capital punishment has been a matter of great debate for centuries, and it intensified ever since there emerged a subculture of humans which realized that people were entirely responsible for their own actions. Dishing out the death penalty began to be considered abhorrent to collective human conscience, and it began to be understood that capital punishment wasn’t effective as a deterrent of crime in any case. In Frederick Forsyth’s bestselling fictional thriller The Day of the Jackal, he mentions how he would feel if he were hypothetically to witness an execution by firing squad in the quote above. You might want to forgive the author for missing out on the words “calculated” and “chilling.” Here is a description of what execution by the firing squad looks/has looked like in the United States:

For execution by this method, the inmate is typically bound to a chair with leather straps across his waist and head, in front of an oval-shaped canvas wall. The chair is surrounded by sandbags to absorb the inmate’s blood. A black hood is pulled over the inmate’s head. A doctor locates the inmate’s heart with a stethoscope and pins a circular white cloth target over it. Standing in an enclosure 20 feet away, five shooters are armed with .30 caliber rifles loaded with single rounds. One of the shooters is given blank rounds. Each of the shooters aims his rifle through a slot in the canvas and fires at the inmate.[…] The prisoner dies as a result of blood loss caused by rupture of the heart or a large blood vessel, or tearing of the lungs. The person shot loses consciousness when shock causes a fall in the supply of blood to the brain. If the shooters miss the heart, by accident or intention, the prisoner bleeds to death slowly.[….]

Even as a global drive to eradicate capital punishment is on wheels, Utah revived this chilling form of state murder last year. With production and supplies of the drugs midazolam and pentobarbital sodium dwindling, this was seen as the only substitute if the drug necessary to kill the convict on death row were not available. It’s nothing but an elaborate target practice, playing games with human life, with the ultimate goal of destroying it. There could be nothing more cold and cruel than having a doctor pinpoint the target for the shooters. The person being shot might have committed a ghastly crime, but if the only form of justice a civilized society can mete out to those dangerous criminals -or those perceived to be dangerous in their respective societies- is judicially sanctioned murder, then justice is nothing but glorified revenge. When you also take into account the fact that this is being done to a person in captivity, those responsible for the murder have lost all moral authority. In such a society, only fear and deterrence rule, and not good sense and human dignity. Unfortunately, most societies through much of history have considered the death penalty as just punishment for certain crimes. Apart from continuation of death penalty for heinous crimes, even today the “crime” of blasphemy, for example, attracts the death penalty in certain societies. And it doesn’t even have to be the judiciary that authorizes the murder. Especially where religion is concerned, zealots are pretty apt to “take the law into their own hands” when their religion is perceived to have come under attack. Even as a Pope seems to finally have realized, albeit to an extent that is “allowed” by Roman Catholicism, that gay people are after all humans, and deserve “respect” (whatever that may mean in religious terms, since all humans in Christianity are allegedly sheep) as much as any other, Bangladesh is back in the news for all the wrong reasons once again. Rabid Bangladeshi Islamists have picked up where they left their homicidal campaign off (seemingly) in 2015, killing another secular blogger, a 26 year old law student by the name of Nazimuddin Samad. His crime was his criticism of religion, especially of Islam, and of the misanthropic supremacist fanaticism that is Islamism, pithily encapsulated in these words that appeared on his now deactivated Facebook page:

Evolution is a scientific truth. Religion and race are invention of the savage and uncivil people.

Islam is supposed to be against racism. If that is so, then he was agreeing with Islam at least on this one issue, however much there might have been a difference in philosophy. In fact, in Bangladesh these Islamist slash squads publish their “hitlists” in public domain, and explicitly threaten bloggers and writers with murder if they speak out against Islamist atrocity. This particular case just shows how intolerant fundamentalist Islam and Islamism are of differences in opinion. It is an army of zombies -who have lost all critical faculties- looking to either recruit similarly brainwashed individuals or kill those who use their brains to think. And even the ones that are allowed to live are trained to suicide murder, irrespective of gender, age and health condition. One can swear that even these machete swinging atavists have no idea what they want ultimately.

But it’s not just “savage and uncivil” ideological descendants of brain-dead religion who are responsible for executing those who, in their eyes, have committed unpardonable crimes (or more appropriately, “sins”). As Amnesty International has found out, in 2015 alone, upwards of 1600 judicially sanctioned executions were carried out all over the world, if you could bring yourself to believe these were actual judiciaries and not butchers by proxy.

Nearly 90% of these happened in just three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. But these figures exclude China, where numbers remain a state secret.

Pakistan had enforced a moratorium on the death penalty since 2008 till 2014 when the tragic Peshawar school bloodbath happened. Since then Pakistan has been murdering those who had allegedly been involved in terrorism. And murdering quite merrily. Pakistan ranked among the top five executioners for the first time since 2008.

Executions in Saudi Arabia shot up by 76% compared to 2014; at least 158 people were put to death in 2015. Meanwhile, Iran executed at least 977 people, mainly for drug-related crimes.

Iran continued to execute juvenile offenders – those aged under 18 at the time of the alleged crime – in violation of international law. Along with Maldives and Pakistan, it also sentenced juvenile offenders to death in 2015.

Countries continued to flout other aspects of international law, putting to death people with mental or intellectual disabilities, as well as those charged with non-lethal crimes. Apart from drug-related offences, people were executed for crimes such as adultery, blasphemy, corruption, kidnapping and “questioning the leader’s policies”.

The number of countries that executed people rose – from 22 in 2014 to 25 in 2015. At least six countries resumed executions: Bangladesh, Chad, India, Indonesia, Oman and South Sudan.

No prizes for guessing where “adultery” and “blasphemy” could be crimes. It would be pretty safe to say that these countries are basically ruled by an intolerant interpretation of Islam, assuming there is any interpretation of Islam, at least in its pristine form, that is tolerant of anything that moves and is not a self-professed acolyte of Muhammad. As for execution for the crime of “questioning the leader’s policies”, it’s pretty much the hallmark of a dictatorship to kill anything that challenges the authority of the “leader.” North Korea, for example. Led by the despicable descendant of a Communist tyrant, Kim Jong Un, the country’s government, if it can be called that has been busy wasting its meagre resources on conducting nuclear tests and designing and testing missiles against imaginary “threats” to the sovereignty of North Korea from South Korea and the United States. The people in North Korea, meanwhile, live in utter misery and poverty . The food aids that North Korea was getting from countries like the US have been stopped because they were not reaching the people they were meant for.

But the North Korean psychopath is not alone. He, and his equally illustrious ancestors, have always had mentors and supporters in another dictatorial regime, the Chinese one. Both make a mockery of the idea of democracy by having “People’s” in their official names. Not to be left behind, North Korea actually goes one step further and declares itself to be “Democratic” as well, for good measure. Anyway, China seems to have a liking for “state secrets.” For example, a movie that criticized the current regime in China happened to win the Best Movie award at the recently concluded Hong Kong film festival. This resulted in China blocking broadcast of the awards ceremony in the mainland. No big surprise, coming from a dictatorship that regularly jails journalists and free speech activists for the flimsy excuse of “protecting national interests.” Therefore, in a country teeming with autocratic “national interests”, it’s understandable that death penalty figures are a “state secret.”

In a recent study published in Nature magazine, it has been suggested that historically human sacrifices have existed in societies that were greatly unequal. In other words, the greater the inequality, the more the need for human sacrifice. Traditionally, these sacrifices mostly had religious excuses for them. In such societies, it was normal to kill people for propitiation of the gods or supernatural agents. The paper states that:

Whilst evolutionary theories of religion have focused on the functionality of prosocial and moral beliefs9, 10, our results reveal a darker link between religion and the evolution of modern hierarchical societies11, 12.

The victims were made to feel that something special was happening to them, and that their sacrifice would make a huge difference to their people. The sad truth is that this was never the case. Those sacrificed typically belonged to the lower rungs of society, and they were only being made scapegoats in this hideous human sacrifice industry. The point is that these people were seen as worthless and hence were considered utterly dispensable. In unequal societies, like in dictatorships or theocracies, it becomes just a pastime of the tyrant. The more the dependence on autocratic whimsy, the crueler the method is likely to be. Of course, it’s pointless to argue which one of the methods is the most “humane”, because it makes no sense. But the utter disdain for human life is more obvious in some methods than in others. Since there is never even any global consensus on which crimes are more punishable by death than the rest, these executions are almost always arbitrary, whether they are carried out in autocracies or democracies. Let us look at two examples of arbitrary execution:

  • Take the case of Pavel Sialiun. Convicted for allegedly having killed his wife and her lover, he was sentenced to death by the highest court of Belarus. Both he and his mother had appealed against the order, and made separate pleas for presidential pardon. The President, dictator Alexander Lukashenko actually made sure that the execution was carried out without Pavel’s mother being notified of the date of execution beforehand. It was also done without considering fully the merits of the case at hand. This was in clear violation of international law governing capital punishment. The method of execution? Death by firing squad . Chilling, cold and calculated, as we have seen before.
  • This found resonance in India’s sub rosa execution of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri terrorist who was hanged in early 2013 without following due procedure. But India is a democracy, and a debate on the legitimacy of his execution at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi earlier this year led to a chain of events that sparked off an entirely new flavour of discourse with regards to free speech and the idea of “nationalism” in India. India is a democracy and a republic, but there are still humongous inequalities in the country. It’s not surprising then, that very often an elected government in India has the ever-irresistible temptation to become autocratic. In fact, it would not be far off the mark to suggest that the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi has dictatorial tendencies.
Aung San Suu Kyi: The Empress’ new clothes?

The cult of power is, well, a powerful addiction. Burma has finally got a civilian government after the military junta that ruled the impoverished South East Asian country for over 5 decades relinquished power. But the military continues to have a sizable stake in government still. They framed a Constitution which was designed to keep Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the victorious NLD party which won a landslide at the elections late last year, out from the President’s office.

According to chapter 3, no 59(f) of the constitution, the president must be someone who “he himself, one of the parents, the spouse, one of the legitimate children or their spouses not owe allegiance to a foreign power”.

“[They shall] not be subject of a foreign power or citizen of a foreign country … [or] be persons entitled to enjoy the rights and privileges of a subject of a foreign government or citizen of a foreign country,” it states.

That means Aung San Suu Kyi cannot become president because her two sons are both British citizens.

Chapter 3, no 57(d) of the constitution states the president must “be well acquainted with the affairs of the Union such as political, administrative, economic and military”.

But Aung San Suu Kyi has no such military experience.

Since the military has 25 percent of seats reserved for them in the lower and upper houses of the national legislature, it is unlikely that the clauses providing for Constitutional safeguards to military power, rightly described by Suu Kyi as “very silly”, are going to be amended any time soon. Suu Kyi, however, has insisted that she is going to be the one in charge, and has recently become the Foreign Minister of Burma (officially Myanmar, a change of name effected without consensus by the previous junta in 1989) in order to hold a portfolio of importance in the government.

Myanmar’s democracy leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, foiled by military leaders in her bid to become president, would become “state counselor” under a measure approved on Tuesday by Parliament’s lower house. The newly created role could give her authority exceeding the president’s.

The newly appointed President, Htin Kyaw, is a close associate of Suu Kyi’s and has been a loyal friend to her for a long time. After spending decades as a shy and reserved scholar who was in the political shadow of Suu Kyi, he has finally been rewarded for his loyalty with the President’s office. However,

The position of state counselor would allow her [Suu Kyi] to coordinate the activities of Parliament and the executive branch. She also holds the positions of minister of the president’s office and foreign minister.

The combination of jobs means that she will oversee the president’s office, determine foreign policy and coordinate decision-making between the executive branch and parliamentary leaders. It is unclear what responsibilities that will leave for the president.

This basically means that the President is merely a puppet. Suu Kyi’s political legerdemain of conjuring up a new political post to circumvent the “silly” restrictions that the military-framed Constitution have imposed on her has potentially ominous forebodings. Popular support for her and her party NLD, or National League for Democracy -that led to an overwhelming majority in their favour in the elections and hence the passage of her proposal in the lower house- was understandable in light of the atrocities perpetrated by the junta on the civilian population, especially dissidents or minorities, over decades. She was also seen, both globally and locally, as a champion of democracy and human rights, having been placed under house arrest by the junta for almost two decades. As well-intentioned an individual as Suu Kyi might be, and however dearly she might love the people of Burma, true democracy demands rule of law, not twisting or bending law to serve your own ambition of power-grabbing as a countermeasure to wrongs that have been inflicted on people by dictators in the past, especially in a world that is prone to madness, chaos and unreliability. At best it’s patronizing, at worst it’s demagoguery and autocracy in the garb of democracy. For a most recent similar example, we need to look no further than Narendra Modi, and his right-wing army’s crackdown on free speech and religious freedom. Narendra Modi, and his party BJP won a large mandate during the last general elections to the Parliament in 2014, riding a huge tide of anti-incumbency and the general disillusionment of the public with corruption at every level of governance. Two years later, it’s back to square one. Narendra Modi calls the shots at everything the BJP does. Him and his party have been aggressively pushing a fascist agenda wherein they instruct people how best to live “as an Indian” and use Constitutional loopholes and subterfuges to pass controversial laws. The very idea of democracy is being threatened by Narendra Modi’s wannabe dictatorship. Ironically enough, the political coalition in power at the Centre in India is named NDA, or National Democratic Alliance. One wonders what NLD’s (which also has “Democracy” in it) tryst with power will eventually come to. At least with Daw Suu Kyi’s education and alleged political wisdom, one would expect her to fare better than Modi, who had no prior experience as a politician at the national level. But power has a bad rep for corrupting the best of them. The extreme cynic might even wonder if her first political move as Foreign Minister to engage with China was mere coincidence.

Speaking of China, and coming back to its predilection for state secrets, the new (or old, depending on where you fix your timeline) poster boy of China’s pseudo-democratic oligarchy, Xi Jinping, might have trawled into treacherous waters. Having promoted himself as an anti-corruption campaigner and having put to trial many ex and current officials for alleged wrongdoing, he has to deal with the quandary of allegations of corruption against his own relatives. His brother-in-law, who goes by the name of Deng Jiagui, has been found holding shares in companies registered in far off British Virgin Islands, through the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca. As has traditionally been thought appropriate for any and every such issue that involves the Communist Party of China leadership directly and indirectly, there is censorship prevailing in China on the reporting of the Panama Papers issue. This, again, is a “state secret.”

The Chinese President is not the only one to have been compromised by the leaks, however. Or to have expressed a desire to keep things secret. It has already started taking political casualties, and the first big fish is the now ex-Prime Minister of Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who was forced to resign in the face of growing resentment over his being in power, two days after storming out of a Swedish studio (where he was being interviewed) over questions regarding his alleged involvement in corruption. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, seems to have had offshore accounts in his own name before he became Prime Minister in 2010. His late father also had offshore accounts, and when asked about it, his office issued a statement saying that it was “a private matter.” It took him more than two days to “come clean”, and that actually raises more questions than it answers. And this is not even the beginning. The leak, facilitated by the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung uncovered about 11.5 million documents pointing to suspicious business and financial transactions by a galaxy of stars, starlets and stardust of various masses across the spectrum. The identity of the source is not known, but their letting such an explosive cat out of the bag is like opening a Pandora’s box, and investigations are underway in many countries as the world tries to make sense of the magnitude of this sordid criminal affair. One can only imagine how much of theft has been going on under the radar. We can only wait and watch as the drama unfolds.

For centuries the death penalty, often accompanied by barbarous refinements, has been trying to hold crime in check; yet crime persists. Why? Because the instincts that are warring in man are not, as the law claims, constant forces in a state of equilibrium.

Albert Camus
In absence of the possibility of an absolute moral authority, and as long as everything is fair in love (of power, money and all the *unimportant* rest) and war (of all kinds), one might have to agree with Camus on that.

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