Of punishment and clemency

Syeed Ahamed.

Published in BDnews24 on 2 August 2011.

Yet another death row inmate, AHM Biplob, has been granted clemency by the president. This is not the first time though. In 2010, 20 death row inmates convicted in the controversial Gama killing case were pardoned by the president.

There is an official explanation — according to article 49 of the Bangladesh constitution President Zillur Rahman has the absolute power to offer mercy to any convicted person. The prime minister also defended the president’s action arguing that the case against Biplob was false and politically motivated.

Before we try to make sense of this clemency decision, let’s revisit two other events of punishment and clemency that took place during the same time in two different parts of the world.

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On 18 July, few students, aged between 16 and 22, went to Aminbazar — allegedly to look for drugs. Little did they know, the local villagers were fed up with the ever growing robberies and extortions in the area. When the students were roaming around Keblarchar in the middle of the night, the villagers mistook them for robbers and soon they found themselves in the middle of an angry mob.

Within hours, six students were beaten to death by hundreds of villagers in medieval execution style.

The students sought their innocence, but their requests fell on deaf ears. Their plea for clemency, for crimes they did not commit in the first place, was denied by the merciless mob.

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The other event took place in America. After the 9/11 terror attack, a vindictive Texan man named Mark Stronman went on a shooting spree targeting people of Arab descent. Before he was arrested by the police, two of his victims died. A Bangladeshi immigrant, Rais Bhuiyan, survived with shot in the face and was left blind in his right eye. When Stronman was convicted of the attack and was sentenced to death, Bhuiyan launched an extraordinary campaign called ‘World without Hate’ to save his attacker’s life. In a desperate attempt, Bhuiyan appealed and then filed suit against the state of Texas and its governor to stop Stronman’s execution on grounds of clemency.

In the last moment telephone conversation, Stronman thanked Bhuiyan for his campaign. In his final moments, Stronman said, “hate is going on in this world and it has to stop.”

On 20 July, Stronman was executed by the state of Texas. Bhuiyan’s plea for clemency was denied.

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Lynching by mob is nothing new in this part of the world. Every month some criminals or innocent suspects are getting beaten to death by angry mobs in one district or the other. Other than simply saying that we are too angry a nation, one possible reason for such behaviour would be the lack of justice in our society. When rise in criminal activities is not matched with exemplary punishments, people tend to take the law into own hands.

From that perspective, frequent clemency by the president may not be a good thing for us.

But what if the president is just being kind? When we applaud Rais Bhuiyan for his anti-death sentence campaign, can we really criticise the president for sparing one’s life? Well, the debate could be very difficult if it was for and against death penalty. After all, how many of us would really support death penalty if the killer is our brother? Or, how many will really oppose death penalty if the victim is our father? Well, don’t answer that since this is not such a debate. At least the president has not taken a public stance against death penalty by granting clemency for the killer of his wife. Our president is not Rais Bhuiyan.

Besides, for such a stance to be materialised, the nation will have to abolish death penalty altogether. But that’s another debate. Here, it seems that the president picked and chose the clemency cases. Constitutionally, however, the president can do that. But we can also expect better judgement from him. When only members of ruling political party get wholesale clemency, general people lose hope in the system.

But what if the convict is actually a victim of a biased political system, as the prime minister has argued? After all, we have seen how the legal system gets influenced by the successive political regimes. We still remember how an innocent slum dweller George Miah was forced to make confessional statement on August 21 grenade attack during the past BNP regime. Over the past decades, we have also heard several incidents of innocent victims serving prison times. It is in this setting that the ruling party has argued that both Gama and Nurul Islam murder cases were pursued hurriedly in Speedy Trial Tribunals and the convicts were wrongly accused.

For argument’s sake, let’s ponder on this position and explore the Gama killing case. When the nephew of former BNP deputy minister Ruhul Quddus Talukdar Dulu was murdered, the political cadres of the then ruling party BNP wreak havoc in the area for months. The Speedy Trial Tribunal of Dhaka sentenced 21 persons to death for the killing, of which 13 members were from a single family. Since AL came to power in 2009, they had a long time to find out the real killers and expose the perpetrators of the kangaroo court. But they didn’t.

If the biased political system is to blame for the verdict, then why didn’t the current government let the law take its own course during its own tenure? When the case was pending before the High Court, why didn’t the government allow the issue to be settled in the court of law? Why the president had to order clemency to save them? Does this mean that the court is unreliable under the current regime as well?

When the younger son of the current opposition leader was convicted in a money-laundering case, the general secretary of the ruling party, Syed Ashraful Islam, said that “the judgment proves we have to suffer dire consequences if we fail to make our children good human beings”. But the way the presidential clemency is being exercised, people may think that such dire consequence is true only for the opposition, not for the children of ruling political leaders.

I beg your pardon Mr President, but only something wicked this way comes.


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