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Capital punishment: Should we re-legalise it in the UK?

  • Opinion

By Hasan Almusawi, LLB Law

Since the abolition of capital punishment in 1965 (which had been a well-established custom of English criminal law for centuries), the public have generally remained opposed to the practice. This is due to progressive social attitudes as well as increased recognition of human rights and human dignity.  Despite this, it is not uncommon, now, for members of the public to advocate the return of the noose in English criminal law. It should come as no surprise that the public are outraged by terrorists such as Salmen Abedi, the perpetrator of the attack at Manchester Arena that killed 22 and injured over 250, many of whom were children and teenagers. For some Britons, the only just penalty for such individuals is death. The same attitude applies to perpetrators of other abhorrent acts, namely paedophilia. Famous cases include once loved comedy figure Jimmy Savile as well as former rock star Ian Watkins. Such acts were also carried out by groups such as the Rotherham child exploitation gang, who systematically sexually abused nearly 1,400 young girls. Some Britons claim that such culprits are deserving of the noose despite its abolition over half a century ago, not just to achieve retribution but also as a means for deterrence.

The reintroduction of capital punishment could be easier than many would think. A petition with enough signatures may well force Parliament to at least debate the controversial issue. However, in 2011 a public e-petition calling for parliamentary debate on the reinstatement of capital punishment actually received less signatures than a counter-petition opposing the move. Which casts some doubt on how much demand there really is for the hangman’s return.

Interestingly, while the public seems to oppose reinstatement on home soil, there seems to be no opposition to its use abroad. When Burmese migrant workers Zaw Lin and Wai Phyo were sentenced to death for the murder of Britons Hannah Witheridge and David Miller in Thailand in 2015, David’s brother commented that on the day ‘justice is what has been delivered’. Similarly, Lindsay Hawker’s family were outraged when her convicted rapist and murderer Tatsuya Ichihashi received a life sentence as opposed to the death penalty they had requested in Japan.

A supporter of the reinstatement of capital punishment will find it easier when campaigning, as it is unlikely that members of the public will oppose him when he challenges whether the Yorkshire ripper, who murdered 13 women the 1970’s, or Michael Adebolajo, who slaughtered Drummer Lee Rigby in 2013, deserve the death penalty. On the other hand, the opponent of the reinstatement of capital punishment would be put in an awkward position as he is forced to defend such individuals as not deserving of the death penalty.  This was displayed in November 2016 as voters from California, Nebraska and Oklahoma voted overwhelmingly in favour of retaining the death penalty in state referendums.

Such a debate was more prominent in the UK perhaps 30 or even 20 years ago as far-right political figures would occasionally suggest the reinstatement of capital punishment but there has been little debate in recent times.

The lack of debate shouldn’t come as a surprise considering the fact that such an action would trigger an alarm from the European Court of Human Rights as well as other EU member states, both staunch opponents of capital punishment. The UN and academics alike have also opposed the ‘deterrence’ argument. Statistics show that the murder rate is higher in the US state of Texas, which executes the most murder convicts of all U.S. states, than in other states that abolished the death penalty long ago.

Indeed, a return to capital punishment in Britain is now almost unimaginable due to the country’s various treaties and international commitments. But apart from the legal deliberations, it seems that public calls for the hangman’s return seem to subside after the emotional trauma period following appalling events, when the wider implications of his return are brought to light.

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