Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Living on Death Row | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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It is certain that Hisham Talaat Moustafa, and Mohsen al-Sukkari, will have slept long and well – for the first time in a while – after a court verdict released the noose from around their necks. Being sentenced to years of imprisonment, with all its deprivation, pain, and dark nights, is still a much more merciful outcome for an inmate than to remain on death row, with the possibility that a warden will knock on his cell door one morning to take him to his execution. One is unable to imagine the magnitude of anxiety that is faced by someone waiting to be executed. One inmate, sentenced to death, wrote in their diary prior to their execution, giving a candid and rare account of the agony of waiting, the fear of dying, and the cruel sense the imminent end.

An Arabic prison officer also told me of his difficult task, being entrusted with bringing death row inmates from their cells to the execution room, and how many of them lose their ability to move or even express themselves. They pray on their way to the execution room, looking almost dead, in a state of mental breakdown. There are rare exceptions of course, such as the case of Saddam Hussein. When the American troops described Saddam Hussein’s final moments, in a letter to his wife, which has recently been published, they said that he was able to smile in front of the gallows, as if he was observing something pleasant. When he was told that he would be executed within hours, he was not distressed, but rather he requested a meal of rice with boiled chicken meat, and drank several glasses of hot water with honey, a drink he had enjoyed since his childhood.

In my opinion, those such as Saddam Hussein are aware of the likely prospects of their fate. He was engulfed, for a long time, within the psychological ‘game’ of the killer and the victim. A former official from an authoritarian regime has analyzed this ‘game’, by saying that “you are [mentally] distressed only by your first victim. After that, you need to decide whether to get out of the game or continue. To continue means the risk, and ultimately the reality, that you are also a dead body”.

Those who demand the abolition of the death penalty for murderers and criminals, in both the East and the West, forget the feelings of the victim’s family, and the magnitude of their loss. The role of the death penalty is to offer a form of just retribution, whilst it also serves as a deterrent, and supports the security of societies. Even states that adopt the principle of ‘blood money’ should not allow profiteering from the millions paid by good-hearted humanitarians, since this might lead to a dangerous increase of the rate of murders or a desensitisation towards the act of killing.Yet, it is necessary for the concerned authorities to distinguish between a killer and another in terms of the nature of the crime, its motives and its surrounding conditions.