China’s execution of Akmal Shaikh for heroin smuggling has once again re-opened that thorny old debate on the topic of capital punishment. The radio phone-ins were alive this morning with most of the contributors concluding that China had acted perfectly within its rights and that Shaikh’s fate was entirely of his own making. Leo McKinstry was keen to join the charge, posting this typically vile piece in the Daily Mail, which demonstrated both a lack of humanity and a lack of humility which have become the trademarks of Fleet Street’s most poisonous rag over the years. It would seem that, aside from the usual ‘liberal’ suspects, the majority of the British public are more in tune with McKinstry than they are with Amnesty International.
Much of the debate has centred around Shaikh’s bi-polar disorder and his unsuitability for trial or execution, which in any criminal trial should surely be a fair enough point, and China’s human rights record has once again come under scrutiny. However, surprisingly little has been said about the basic principle of putting people to death for their alleged crimes.
I absolutely, fundamentally believe the death penalty to be wrong, regardless of the nature of the crime involved. I don’t believe it acts as a deterrent, I don’t believe any country in the world can guarantee a judicial system which is immune to miscarriages of justice, but most of all I simply don’t believe it is right to kill another person.
America still persists with the death penalty in many of its States, but that seems to have very little impact on their record levels of violent crime. The strongest deterrent against crime is detection, not sentence – offenders tend to commit crime because they don’t believe they will be caught. Is a knife-wielding killer really weighing up in his mind which is more preferable between a life sentence and the death penalty, or is he thinking how likely he is to get away with it?
As for the soundness of convictions, the UK is hardly the place to start when looking for good practice in this field. The Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, the Bridgewater Three – they and countless others wrongly accused would all have been sent to the gallows if the British legal system still included capital punishment. Once carried out, the death penalty is final and irrevocable – there is no margin for error.
So what of the victims? How would I feel about the death penalty if someone close to me was murdered? The honest answer is that if one of my loved ones was the victim then I imagine no punishment would be too harsh – I would probably want the murderer hanging from the highest tree. But that is precisely the reason why judges and juries with no prior knowledge of the individuals concerned are appointed to carry out trials, and exactly the same logic should always be extended to sentencing. Of course, the flip-side of this argument is how would those baying for the blood of every criminal react if their own son or daughter was accused?
The bottom line for me is that it is wrong to kill people, unless it is the only way to stop them killing others. The death penalty belongs to another age, an age when people took the Old Testament literally, when trial by drowning was an acceptable method of dealing with witchcraft. It is not something that should have a place in a modern society. It saddens me when I read and hear people from this country (which, for all its flaws, still upholds free speech) holding China up as a shining example of how things should be done.
Most countries in the world have turned their back on the death penalty. In time I hope that the two most powerful nations on the planet, China and the United States, will do the same. I’m sorry about what happened to Akmal Shaikh, regardless of what he did or why he did it, but I hope that one day his story will come to be seen as part of the narrative that led to the worldwide end of capital punishment.