The debate surrounding the implementation of capital punishment is quite pertinent and poignant at this time in the Maldives’ history.
The violent crimes, including gang violence, burglary, mugging, sexual abuse of children and murders are increasing to an alarming level in our society. For many, the reintroducing of state-endorsed death, otherwise known as capital punishment or the death penalty, seems to be best solution to address the surge in crime.
The last person to be executed in the Maldives after receiving a death sentence was in 1953 during the first republic of President Mohamed Ameen. Hakim Didi was charged with attempting to assassinate President Ameen using black magic.
Since then, the Maldives has retained the practice of the death penalty, although Islamic Shari’ah tenets give the courts the power to pronounce capital punishment for offences such as murder, sodomy, fornication, apostasy and other crimes against community.
Statistics show that from January 2001 to December 2010, a total of 14 people were sentenced to death by the courts and none were below 18 years of age. These sentences were never enforced and were commuted to life imprisonment under the power vested to the President in Clemency Act.
However, MP Ahmed Mahloof and several other MPs are of the view that if death penalty or capital punishment is re-introduced in the Maldives, it would bring down crime in Maldives, and have decided to propose the amendment in consultation with several people including fellow parliamentarians.
Last April, Mahloof, parliamentary group member government-aligned Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM), forwarded a bill proposing that the enforcement of death penalty be mandatory in the event it was upheld by the Supreme Court. This would halt the current practice of the President commuting such sentences to life imprisonment.
Mahloof based his argument for the proposal of the bill on the fact that 29 people had been killed in the past three years in gang related crimes.
The young MP contended: “I believe nobody would want to die. So if the death penalty is enforced, a person who is to commit a murder would clearly know that if he carries out the act, his punishment would be his life. I believe this will deter him from committing such acts,” Mahloof said.
Mahloof’s remarks echo the classic argument used by politicians and pro-death penalty advocates around the globe: Capital punishment deters crimes.
But, does it actually? Let’s ask the experts from America.
A survey of the most leading criminologists in the country found that the overwhelming majority “did not believe” that the death penalty is a “proven deterrent to homicide”.
Eighty-eight percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe the death penalty acts as a deterrent to homicide, according to the study, Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates? The Views of Leading Criminologists published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.
Similarly, 87 percent of the expert criminologists believe that abolition of the death penalty would not have any significant effect on murder rates.
The survey relied on questionnaires completed by the most pre-eminent criminologists in the country, including Fellows in the American Society of Criminology; winners of the American Society of Criminology’s prestigious Southerland Award; and recent presidents of the American Society of Criminology. Respondents were not asked for their personal opinion about the death penalty, but instead to answer on the basis of their understandings of the empirical research.
On a separate note, 75 percent of the experts agreed that “debates about the death penalty distract Congress and state legislatures from focusing on real solutions to crime problems”- a familiar trait observed in the Maldivian context, where members of the People’s Majlis spend hours arguing, often engrossed in prevarications.
Prior to Mahloof’s motion, two members had forwarded similar bills to enforce death penalty. But after lengthy debates in multiple parliament sessions, both withdrew it.
Meanwhile reading the aforementioned conclusion of the research, I was reminded of a recent conversation with a friend about the death penalty on Facebook.
“I don’t understand why everyone is so eager talking about punishment, before anything else,” said Hammad Hassan, 26. He continued, “Criminals are a product of our society I guess. Someone needs to go in deep and see what the hell is going wrong.”
“Capital punishment has its age-old arguments and jousting between liberals and conservatives. We like to get into debates about stuff. But I guess it’s the wrong debate that’s going on here,” the Tourism and Hospitality graduate pointed out.
He added: “We fixate on issues like this, without even thinking, and the media, and politicians do their job of sensationalising crime.”
“The current rise in crime is pure economics I would say. Too many are out of jobs, many youth are on drugs and everyone wants to have a good time (coffee, a bottle of alcohol or a joint, etc etc),” he typed into the chat window.
So much truth in what he said.
In the Initial Report of Maldives under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prepared by Human Rights Commission (HRCM) last month, the commission acknowledged there are a number of direct and indirect factors attributing to the increasing fatal criminal activity.
“High numbers of unemployed youth, and the persistent substance abuse and drug addiction among youth in the country are indirect factors catalysing the increase in crime,” HRCM emphasized.
According to the authorities, the Maldives has a staggering unemployment rate of 29 percent, of which half belong to youth age brackets. Meanwhile, the country faces a spiralling drug epidemic, with an estimated 40 percent of youth using hard drugs -a well known trigger of violent and high risk behavior.
A comment on Minivan News read: “In the Maldives we have enough people who turned to psychopaths due to drugs who are well capable of committing any heinous crime.”
Most death penalty advocates call for reinstating death penalty, saying “It shouldn’t be seen as retribution. It is to ensure the safety of society”.
But Amnesty International counters this argument. According to the group, “The threat of execution at some future date is unlikely to enter the minds of those acting under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, those who are in the grip of fear or rage, those who are panicking while committing another crime (such as a robbery), or those who suffer from mental illness or mental retardation and do not fully understand the gravity of their crime.”
The couple facing murder charges in the most recent homicide of Lawyer Ahmed Najeeb, confessed in court that they were under the influence of drug and intoxicated from heavy alcohol use while they committed the crime.
But, will the politicians and lawmakers give the necessary attention to these real issues, instead of divulging into the endless debate over the death penalty?
According to Aishath Velezinee, formerly the President’s appointee to the Judicial Services Commission (JSC), Mahloof’s death penalty amendment is another attempt by the MPs to avoid “the real issue” and to “deceive the public”.
“The real issue for thriving crime is corruption. The constitution has recognised this and required the judiciary be checked and cleansed. The JSC breached the constitution, and those MPs are proposing this to cover up the JSC,” Velezinee said in a previous interview.
“Islam upholds justice, and not only has death penalty; it has very clear qualifications for judges too. Neither MP Mahloof, nor any of the Sheikhs, has expressed alarm that the judges are far below standard and some of them are convicted criminals themselves. This is pure politics and abuse of Islam,” she added.
Although the pro-capital punishment sentiments are growing stronger with the symbolic support from country’s top officials including the Chief of Justice, Home Minister and the Attorney General, enforcing the capital punishment is far from happening any time soon while several pertinent legislations are stalled in the parliament, with no indication of when they will be passed.
These legislations, which Human Rights Commission says “could make an impact on the death penalty” include, the Revised Penal Code, Criminal Procedures Code, Evidence Bill and Witness Act.
It also adds: “Maldives is yet to establish an independent forensic institution to provide accurate information to support the judiciary to make an impartial decision on matters concerning the administration of the death penalty.”
The existing Penal Code which was enforced in 1981 and its last amendment made in 200 has many parts which are not relevant to the present context and does not reflect the spirit of the present Constitution.
Moreover, the commission identifies the inadequate legislation pertaining to evidence and witnesses, dismissal of forensic evidence by courts, absence of a witness protection program and inadequate correctional and rehabilitation system for convicted offenders as key factors for rising crimes.
Several members of the public and commentators meanwhile have a another pressing concern. What will happen when an “incapacitated” judiciary is given the power to take some one’s life?
“If there is death penalty without a good system, it will be subjected to political abuse to settle scores,” a person predicted in a comment to Minivan News. “Besides, such crimes results from bad system and bad policies,” he added.
As the debate over the reintroduction of death penalty continues, it would be foolish to assume it will only remain a domestic matter.
The Maldives has affirmed the UN Resolution of Moratorium on death penalty on 18 December 2007, which emphasises all states that still provision capital punishment “progressively restrict the use of the death penalty and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed.”
This resolution still needs to be passed by the parliament.
But, abolition of capital punishment in all states is a call publicly endorsed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon himself. Therefore, in the face of international pressures to the states to abolish death penalty, the Maldives will likely be scrutinised to its core, and sooner or later, if it intends to reintroduce the practice of capital punishment.
One of the serious concerns would of course be the fact that child offenders may be sentenced to death in the Maldives if the mandatory death penalty motion passes.
According to the Human Rights Commission, however, minors are liable to bear criminal responsibility for some offences such as the unlawful intentional killing of human beings, and other offences relating to homicide and participation in such offences.
Several minors are currently facing such charges in court.
But, without a Penal Code which encompasses provisions on penalties for offences committed by minors and a Juvenile Justice Bill explicitly proscribing the death penalty, these minors will be executed once the law makes it mandatory.
Such a move will spark unprecedented international criticism towards the island nation, already facing scrutiny over its human rights violations, growing fundamentalism and troubled democracy.
These factors must not stand in way if the judicially-sanctioned killings are the only answer to Maldives high crime rate. But before we draw to the conclusion with purely basing the religious argument, authorities need to provide clear evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent to serious crime. That it will, in fact rekindle public safety and security.
The Human Rights Commission observes: “Murders were committed in public places during the daytime. Victims of gang violence either end up with permanent injuries or death. It is to be noted that most of the people who are involved in cases of extreme violence, and murders are repeat offenders (sometimes juveniles).”
“This shows failure on the part of law enforcement authorities and criminal justice system in the country.” the commission contends. Members have further added that the lack of a “comprehensive integrated crime prevention mechanism remains the greatest weakness in addressing the issue of increase in crime.
Therefore, for now, the greatest deterrent to crime is the likelihood that offenders will be apprehended, convicted and punished. It is that which is presently lacking in our criminal justice system; and it is at this level and through adressing the causes of crime that the state must seek to combat lawlessness.