Friday, December 02, 2005

The death penalty in Islam

The hanging of a drug courier in Singapore, and the 1000th execution by lethal injection in America has led to calls for the abolishment of the death penalty around the world.  The murder of a policewoman in Great Britain, on the other hand, made the former Metropolitan police Commissioner, Lord Stevens call for the death penalty to be re-introduced. Lord Stevens, by the way, is also the president of AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, of which I am a member.  It’s a small world, I know.

The debate about the rights or wrongs of the death penalty is clearly emotionally charged. Certain well reported events may shift the discussion to one or the other extreme. Decisions on whether the death penalty is appropriate, should be taken, irrespective of whether the victim of a murder is a member of the police force or an ordinary citizen, nor should the fact that the perpetrator can claim mitigating circumstances affect the policy as such, although there is always a case for clemency.

In Islamic law the death penalty has its place as a last resort. It is kept as a reminder that there are crimes so heinous that only the ultimate penalty will be a deterrent, and criminals are so hardened that sometimes only their removal will stop them from offending. It also takes account of the rights of the victims of crime. Let's not forget that those perpetrators about whose right to life we debate so passionately may themselves have caused numerous innocent victims to lose their lives. Hard drugs, for example, are not merely a means to pay for extortionate debt. They destroy the lives of addicts and the communities around them. A country like Singapore has the right to protect itself against such a menace.

The reason the death penalty is so dangerous in its application, however, is that it cannot be undone in case of a miscarriage of justice. Great care must be taken that the conviction is sound and no sentence is passed without due safeguards. The victim's family also have a right to accept compensation from the perpetrator instead or indeed use clemency and, of course, the state should only have the right to apply the ultimate sanction if it abides by all the rules itself. In the hands of a corrupt regime the death penalty becomes a tool of abuse. If a society wants to hold its citizens to account and rule out delinquency, it must first set an example of lawfulness itself.

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