Let us take the high road


The sordid saga of Afzal Guru’s trial, conviction and execution had a curious subplot that mostly escaped public scrutiny. An unsubstantiated claim several year ago, that Afzal asked for a lethal injection to die instead of undergoing execution by hanging, was subsequently categorically refuted by his lawyer as baseless and in fact a disservice to their case. However, it brings forth the important issue of the mode of judicial executions.

India utilizes the method of hanging by the neck till dead. Death by hanging is often slower than expected and painful. Hence, there has been some movement in India towards adopting the lethal injection method in recent years. If carried out without any errors, the use of lethal injection is generally thought to be less barbaric than other modes of execution. In its 187th report published in 2003, The Law Commission of India made a recommendation that section 354(5) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 be amended by providing an alternative mode of execution of death sentence by lethal injection. This recommendation appears to be influenced at least in part by the fact that a majority of the states in the US utilize lethal injection for judicial executions. The lethal injection is usually a three drug protocol; use of an anesthetic agent first, followed next by a paralytic agent and finally by an agent to stop the heart. However, it must be noted that implementation of this method in the US has had its share of problems and controversies.

Death Penalty Information Center, a non-profit organization that analyzes and provides information on issues concerning capital punishment in the US, has highlighted that the use of lethal injection can be technically difficult and has resulted in bungled executions. One of the biggest concerns has been the use of inadequate anesthesia leading to a painful death. Another controversy in recent years has been the use of an anesthetic agent that is deemed to be non-standard, when the routinely used agent became unavailable. This is thought to have led to excessive suffering. Recent medical literature based on original research out of the US has expressed concerns that even when lethal injection is used without errors, it may not lead to a pain free death.

Bungled executions in the US have resulted in the judiciary asking for the presence of medical professionals during these procedures. However, to participate in these executions would mean violation of the principle precepts of medical ethics. The American Medical Association has a policy that opposes participation of doctors in legally authorized executions. The World Medical Association has reaffirmed a similar stance recently. India, even if it adopts the lethal injection method, is unlikely to get help from medical professionals. Thus, this technical procedure will be in the hands of non-medical personnel, making complications and bungled executions more likely.

Instead of a detour to lethal injection, India should consider taking the high road to complete abolition of the capital punishment. It is certainly not an uncharted territory. After all, a vast majority of the developed world and substantial number of other countries have done so on ethical grounds. In this light, India has fallen behind several ‘less developed’ and ‘less civilized’ nations. We know, based on available medical evidence, that human executions are difficult to perform and often involve physical violence. Can we justify physical violence in response to any crime? The answer of a humane society would be a unanimous ‘no’. Most importantly, abolition of capital punishment will eliminate all possibilities of wrongful executions.

Jay Desai is a faculty member at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine


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