Life Sentence or Death Penalty – At What Price Freedom and Justice?

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Ajmal Kasab (left); Anders Breivik (centre); Osama Bin Laden (right)

DISCLAIMER – The three terrorists and their actions have been cited in this article solely for the purpose of debate. The writer does not subscribe to their views, beliefs, or objectives and does not in any way sympathise or empathise with their motive or actions. The author supports the former right to die campaigner’s fight for legal euthanasia.

As I sit down to write this, a gentleman named Kasab has been sentenced to death for an unprovoked terrorist attacked in Mumbai. India is one of the few countries where the death penalty is still part of its complex legal system. Although a rarity in recent decades, it is still upheld as the last resort for crimes deemed too horrendous to be served by a life sentence alone. India is no stranger to acts of violent hatred and terrorism is one of the evils that plagues my beautiful native country. However, it is rare that perpetrators are actually caught, tried, and sentenced – with the very real possibility of the sentence being carried out.

Kasab has been convicted of causing the deaths of 166 innocent lives in the Mumbai attacks – will his singular death in some way lessen the pain of the grieving families? What about his own? What about the fanatics and would be terrorists who plot to avenge his death by any means possible? Should civilised society still resort to inflict the final judgement on men? What about rehabilitation, or is that too sensitive a topic for those who have lost everything due to the senseless violence caused by terrorism? We must continue to question our morals even if the answers are difficult or unacceptable. To even suggest a fate other than death for Kasab is seen as the stance of a nation-hating traitor in the social media bubble. This is deeply worrying if hatred and intolerance were the actual seeds that produced the shocking devastation carried out by Kasab and his co-conspirators.

Moving away from the subcontinent, in recent days another infamous terrorist has been sentenced. Breivik was sentenced to 21 years imprisonment, the longest penal sentence available for his crimes. If we accept senseless acts of violence as being the hallmark of violence, then this verdict has been one which has caused much soul searching. The trial of Breivik concentrated its efforts on determining whether or not he was of sound mind when he carried out the massacre which took 77 lives, many of which were yet to develop their full potential – children and youths gunned down. There is pedestrian terrorism, the blowing up of empty buildings or crowded trains, and then there is this: the taking of life where victims are the most vulnerable, and perhaps the most innocent of all – our children. Surely the killing of children guarantees a much more severe sentence than 21 years? What of the death penalty in such cases or life imprisonment? One must return to the question of what is acceptable and justifiable.

Norway as a society has rejected such punishments in favour of what it feels is a term that suits the severity of the crimes committed. I hasten to add the judge did warn the sentence of 21 years could be considerably longer if Breivik was considered to be a viable threat at the end of the time served. To be held in a high security prison indefinitely, is this the most suitable form of punishment one could hope for? What about human rights, or does one lose these luxuries in view of heinous crimes committed – can we ever forfeit our freedom wilfully or is it a case of action and sanctions?

Standing trial is a freedom in itself. What if that basic right was denied, or ‘compromised’ due to a security operation? An eye witness account of the Bin Laden shooting now claims he was unarmed and not a threat when shot down. The truth of this account is open to debate, but the fact remains that no trial was offered to the most wanted terrorist in recent memory. Standing trial and defending your actions can be just as powerful an act as setting off bombs or bringing down aeroplanes. Justice can be meted out away from public eyes, carried out by professionals.

As I mentioned before, this account is open to debate. One may also assume the threat posed by Bin Laden during the operation was too great, and therefore decisive action was taken to neutralise him. These are split second life or death decisions taken by armed professionals away from the legal wrangling in sweaty court rooms which could take well over a year to convict and hand out sentences. Is rough justice the best way forward? Where does this leave our principles of freedom and fair trial? If we are setting an example of liberty and equality, how can we justify such actions?

Kasab, Breivik, Bin Laden – each case is interesting and a sad reminder of the hate filled world we live in where intolerance and extremism can cause very real disasters. Fringe elements can no longer be dismissed as being the basket case in an otherwise civilised world, one needs to account for the will and the reach of each potential hatemonger. What of the flip side to this stilted argument, what of those who welcome the death sentence but are denied the right to die?

A prisoner is not just one who has been captured and awaits sentencing – some individuals are trapped in excruciating physical and mental torture and forced to live out their lives. There is no sentencing except the life sentence – there is no early release from the daily pain of being alive. I speak of the high profile euthanasia verdict in the UK.

It is hard not to feel ashamed and useless as a human being as you see Nicklinson sobbing upon hearing he has been denied the right to a dignified death. Every second, every hour, becomes an eternal life sentence as he remains locked in without any hope of a recovery. His “quality of life” now a distant memory. There is no highly skilled armed unit waiting to shoot him down, he does not have to prove his sanity, nor has he gone through a hugely expensive prison stay while awaiting sentencing. He has become at once the prisoner and the prison itself – and death is not the worst outcome for his struggles, it is a blessed relief to his torture. Heartbroken he rejected food and died a painful death, instead of the dignified departure he had hoped for. In many senses the sentence given to him of staying alive is perhaps a worse fate than any.

As individuals, as citizens, as families and communities what can we do to change things for the better? How do we ensure the right justice is meted out, and every chance for rehabilitiation and reintegration provided to the guilty? Do we give in to hysteria and demand no less than death itself as an appeasement to our sense of grief? Do we give in to a more measured response where an indefinite internment is the only solution? Do we cast aside all sense of fair trial and eliminate the guilty due to the threat they pose?

The examples of the three terrorists cited in this article present a black and white picture of evil deeds against helpless innocents. What if the crimes were not black and white and clear to see – but there were shades of grey, and doubts about innocence and a flawed conviction? When do we stop and pose the most important question of all – the right to live and the right to die – in dignity and in fairness to all – judgement in accordance to the harms we commit to others and the harms committed to us? The rights of the perpetrator balanced with the rights of the innocent. The right to life held as precious as the right to die.

These questions remain unanswered and will continue to haunt our conscience – perhaps being aware and being more tolerant and actively listening is our first step towards achieving the perfect judicial solution to our various multifaceted problems of crime and punishment.

Samragi Madden was born in India, and grew up travelling between India, Nepal and Burma. Living in England since 2000, she spent over a decade working for the local government within housing and social care. Since 2012 Samragi has focused on her projects exclusively for the community voluntary sector in an advisory and peer advocate capacity. Her areas of interest include poetry, literature, art, and politics.

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