NEW DELHI — The recent execution of serial husband-killer Betty Lou Beets in Texas has been condemned by human rights institutions in many countries. They find it strange that the United States, which calls itself a champion of human rights, should resort to something as barbaric as capital punishment. More than 75 people were executed there last year, and this brackets it with countries like China and Russia.

If Beets’ death caused outrage in much of Europe, it has certainly added fire to a debate in India. Its central law minister, Ram Jethmalani, said last week that the death sentence had failed as an instrument of prevention. Hard-core criminals were no longer afraid of being sent to the gallows.

In fact,even the widows of the late Indian Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi (murdered many years ago), and the Australian missionary, Graham Staines (burned alive some months ago in the eastern Indian state of Orissa), declared that they would not want the guilty to face death.

Although most countries have abolished capital punishment and some others have retained it merely in their statute books, India has been taking recourse to this law, though only in the rarest of cases.

India’s Supreme Court holds that the death sentence does not violate the constitution. However, one of the judges, V.R. Krishna Iyer, ruled that such a verdict would be justified only if the criminal was dangerous to society.

But who is to decide this? Obviously the judge concerned. Iyer contended that giving such a power to a judge to decide between capital punishment and life imprisonment on special reasons would go against Article 14 of the country’s constitution, which condemns arbitrariness.

The opinion has set the tone for an intense debate. The plea for abolishing the death penalty has found increasing support in India. Scientific studies, abolitionists argue, have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that capital punishment deters crime more effectively than other forms of retribution.

A 1988 survey conducted for the United Nations concluded that there was absolutely no basis to show that executions had a greater deterrence than life imprisonment. Statistics from the countries which have abolished the death penalty have since supported the finding.

Besides, no one can prevent a crime of passion with any kind of law. Nor can anyone easily block a shrewd serial killer. A convict cannot be hanged twice. And there’s no stopping a terrorist committed to a cause, since he has no fear of losing his own life. The deterrent hypothesis thus stands quashed.

Worse, as long as capital punishment exists, the risk of putting a noose around the innocent can never be totally eliminated. After all, no human system is infallible. In India, where no research has been made into this aspect, such miscarriage of justice is quite likely, given the state of the judiciary and the complexities of the society. The legal system is not only bogged down by archaic laws but also a terrible shortage of personnel.

In a country ridden with caste, communal and religious disparities, and a far-from-perfect method of policing, the chances of willful conviction may not be exactly rare. In the U.S., the death penalty has been often termed “racist.” The late Supreme Court Justice William Douglas made virtual history when he said that capital punishment was for those without capital, the poor.

India — where large sections of the one billion population live in extreme poverty with absolutely no means of hiring talented lawyers to argue their cases — is probably a good example of what Douglas said.

Ultimately, even the very thought of the state executing somebody is primitive.

The concept that preaches “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” borders on the ridiculous. It is degrading, and has nothing but contempt for the right to life. It has no place in civilized existence.

The moot point here is, does India realize this? It may, at a certain level, which is usually the emotional. Arguments against the death penalty invariably arise when important cases are tried.

If the Rajiv Gandhi assassination shook the nation that of Staines came as a horrid blow to a country that takes pride in saying that it follows a nonviolent path.

Nothing can be farther from the truth. Bloodshed and gore have marked life in India in recent years, and it is not very difficult to conclude in such a context that the creation of a humane society is certainly the first step toward abolishing capital punishment.

A modern society must constantly strive to resolve its contradictions in a dignified manner — and not through shortcuts like hanging or lethal injection.

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