On the Death Penalty

On the Death Penalty

By Tariq Ramadan

Turning his face towards the victim’s relatives, he repeated with calm determination: “May God forgive you because I did not kill him.” Troy Davis had been waiting on death row for more than twenty years, all the while proclaiming his innocence.

These were his last words to those in charge of the American judiciary system and to society as a whole: “May God forgive you, you are legally killing an innocent man.” Numerous appeals for a stay of execution in order to reassess the guilty verdict were not enough. Troy Davis, an African-American, was executed, murdered by lethal injection. A shameful day.

He was the “perfect” murderer of a white police officer inSavannah,Georgia, in 1989. The dead officer’s family—as well as the judiciary system itself—remained blind to compelling evidence ofDavis’s innocence.

Over the years, many witnesses recanted their testimony (explaining how they had been pressured by the police); no real proof against the accused was ever presented. International campaigns were launched, but nothing could change the court’s decision. Innocent or not, it was too late: Davies had to die. Not even the timing was an accident: prior to elections politicians, and the system, like to prove they are tough on crime. Electoral concerns drive the death penalty business.

Another convict was killed the same night, with three others to be executed very soon. What a cynical, undignified and shameful farce. And they call it a democratic system?

Troy Davis was black and poor. In the current American legal system, if you happen to be arrested, these two features point directly to your guilt.

“Reasonable doubt” works mainly for white men and women, such as Casey Anthony, and the rich citizens and famous, people like O.J. Simpson or Dominique Strauss Kahn. In Barack Obama’sAmerica, injustice for poor African-American citizens seems to be rooted in the system itself.

Yet, beyond these well-known facts, and the unbearable lack of justice and fairness, the ongoing implementation of the death penalty is in itself shocking.

Our current judicial systems, in both East and West, are so imperfect, so lacking in equity and transparency, that one wonders how citizens and civilized people can accept that human beings be executed in their name, be they innocent and even guilty.

We have so much to reform, so much to improve, that our shortcomings should always benefit the accused. Far better to err in her or his favor than to kill by mistake.

Last summer we witnessed one such a case.

Ten days after September 11, 2011, Mark Stroman attacked three people he thought were Muslims (one of them was not), killing two of them. The third, an American Muslim of Bangladeshi background, Rais Bhuiyan, pretended to be dead and survived the attack.

Stroman was arrested and eventually sentenced to death. He remained nearly ten years on death row; during these ten years his would-be victim, Rais, tried to save him, offering his forgiveness and requesting that the judiciary halt its infernal machinery and save him.

Despite Rais’ personal commitment, Stroman was executed on July 21, 2011 inTexas. In those years, Mark Stroman had profoundly apologized and had become another man when he left this world.

Rais Bhuiyan has become the true face of dignity and compassion and, indeed, the personification of how Islamic values and spirituality can transform an open heart.

This is a far more profound and true example of what Islam stands for than the recent executions in Saudi Arabia by beheading of a so-called exorcist or in Iran by hanging a man from a crane (as happened few weeks ago).

Both sentences were issued by opaque judicial systems where neither the accused nor her/his lawyer (assuming an accused even has the right to an independent lawyer) could defend themselves properly, only compounding the shame.

In the United Stated, inSaudi Arabia, inIranor anywhere else, capital punishment should be abandoned. Our judicial systems are too imperfect, too influenced by politics and money, and far too exposed to procedural mistakes.

The accused should enjoy the benefit of the doubt; our societies should remain dignified.

In 2005, I launched a call for a moratorium on the death penalty, corporal punishments and stoning. I emphasized that in the very name of Islam, Muslim majority societies should stop treating people in such a way,that so often targets women and the poor.

It is in the very name of our common values that we need to take a stand today against capital punishment. Troy Davis is dead; so is Mark Stroman: the former was surely innocent and was hoping for us to be forgiven, the latter was guilty, and begged for our forgiveness.

As we look at ourselves in a mirror let us hope that, with or without compassion, we may at least show some dignity.

If we remain silent, the shame is ours.