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Vappala Balachandran | 3 AUGUST, 2015

Death Penalty Does Not Deter Terrorism


MUMBAI: The oft quoted example to prove that death sentence does not deter terrorism comes from Saudi Arabia. On November 13, 1995 a three storeyed building used by US military personnel in Riyadh was destroyed by Jehadi car bombing. This was the first terrorist attack against US targets in Saudi Arabia in 50 years. 5 Americans and 2 Indians were killed. 4 Saudi bombers who confessed were decapitated in May 1996. On June 26, 1996 a huge truck bomb in Khobar, Dhaharan killed 23 US soldiers. Philip Shenon, writing in New York Times on the same day said that terrorists had warned the Saudi government that they would retaliate if the November bombers were killed.

Jessica Stern, a known authority on terrorism and a former staff member of the US National Security Council (1994-1995) had said in her piece “Execute Terrorists at Our Own Risk” (New York Times, Feb 28, 2001): “One can argue about the effectiveness of the death penalty generally. But when it comes to terrorism, national security concerns should be paramount. The execution of terrorists, especially minor operatives, has effects that go beyond retribution or justice. The executions play right into the hands of our adversaries. We turn criminals into martyrs, invite retaliatory strikes and enhance the public relations and fund-raising strategies of our enemies”.

However many governments ignore this advice and often fall into a cliché trap by codifying capital punishment for terrorists. Yet we see that global opinion on death penalty is sharply divided. The United States, often considered as a model of human rights and free thought has death penalty in 31 of their 50 states and also at the federal level. On the other hand, Israel which is often quoted as the target of global terrorism had abolished this extreme punishment even for murder (de facto) since 1954.

Seventy eight countries including India and Pakistan enforce death penalty. Pakistan which suspended death penalty for 7 years resumed executions in March this year. Ninety eight countries including United Kingdom, France and Uzbekistan, which are affected by terrorism, do not have this penalty in their criminal law. 7 countries including Israel and Kazakhstan do not allow death sentence for “ordinary” crimes. 35 countries like Russia, Tajikistan and Sri Lanka have imposed de facto ban on death penalty. The Russian moratorium was ordered by President Yeltsin in 1996 although it was affected by Chechen terrorism later. An October 2011 Gallup poll in USA found that support for death penalty was at its lowest (61%) since 1972(80%). New York Times ( Oct 14, 2011) said: “It is evident in the greater part of America’s counties where people realize that, in addition to being barbaric, capricious and prohibitively expensive, the death penalty does not reflect their values”.

Why is death penalty more expensive? The only country which had done studies on this is America. The figures are astonishing. A “Forbes” report( May 1, 2014) quoted the Washington State Bar Association saying that a death penalty trial entails $ 470,000 as additional cost for the prosecution than a similar case without death penalty. A 2014 Pennsylvania study found that they had spent over $350 million during the prosecution ending with just three executions. Around the same time Maryland State found that only $1.9 million was spent in cases in which the death penalty was not sought. These figures include lawyers’ fees, special prison arrangements and the cost of executions. Have we ever attempted to study the humongous amount our governments had spent over the years on special public prosecutors’ fees and court expenses during Yakub Memon’s trial and hanging, not to speak of the monetized cost of thousands of man hours in deploying over 30,000 policemen in Mumbai and a proportionate number in Nagpur whereas no such expenditure would have been incurred had he been imprisoned for life?

However many of us still feel that terrorism has to be punished through death sentence. In June 1995 US Senate majority leader Bob Dole (Republican) introduced a bill to prescribe death penalty for terrorism, which is a “federal crime”. This was in the background of the first World Trade Center bombing in February 1993 by Kuwaiti- Pakistani terrorist Ramzi Yousef which killed 6. Besides the Okalahoma city bombing by Timothy McVeigh had taken place in April 1995 killing 168. Democrats tried to kill the bill by introducing 67 amendments. Bob Dole then appealed to President Bill Clinton to prevent the bill from being bogged down with amendments. He also chided him for trying to take all the credit for the bill! The law was finally passed as “Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act 1996” (AEDPA) and signed by President Clinton in April 1996.

But this did not deter terrorists from attacking United States. At least 36 serious attacks against America had taken place within and outside the mainland beginning with the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. In 1998 US missions in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam were attacked and in 2000 USS Cole was bombed. The terrorists took the battle into the heart of US in 2001(9/11) killing 2,992 persons. Since then it has been an unending battle between foreign and domestic terrorists with the totally reformed US counter-terrorist (CT) machinery which is trying to keep terrorism away at least from the mainland. However one thing is certain: Bob Dole’s death penalty law of 1996 has had no effect in deterring creeping terrorism into America.

On the other hand the overwhelming global trend is against state executions. No better example of this line of thinking can be found than from Israel. In June 2014 Chief Ashkenazic Rabbi David Lau of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, the supreme spiritual authority, told the grieving nation that only God can punish the assailants of the 3 Israeli teens, abducted and killed by Palestinians: “Individuals do not have the right to take revenge for the death of the innocent. Revenge is not a license given to the hot-blooded for 'action.' Revenge is a strong, destructive weapon, and if there is such a concept in the world, it does not belong to humans.”

Unfortunately our saffron groups who celebrated Yakub Memon hanging and who often quote Israel don’t read such views as they are pure Gandhian.

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