Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lowest common denominator

Rizana Nafeek was a 17-year-old from Sri Lanka who took a job as a nanny in Saudi Arabia back in 2005. Shortly after she took the job, the four-month-old child she was in charge of watching was found dead. Ms. Nafeek was accused of killing the baby.

While in custody she confessed to the crime. After she was convicted, Ms. Nafeek claimed that she was coerced into confessing and that she was denied the assistance of counsel. As a result of the conviction, Ms. Nafeek was sentenced to death.

Despite protestations from Ms. Nafeek's parents and from the Sri Lankan government, the Saudis carried out the beheading of Ms. Nafeek earlier this month. Her hands were tied behind her back. She was forced to kneel over a block. Her head was cut off with a sword.

The death of Ms. Nafeek didn't bring back the dead child. The hole in the parents' lives didn't just disappear. Now another family has lost their child. And they lost her to a system with no accountability.

Another family is also set to lose a loved one. This time it's not a daughter, it's a grandmother. Lindsay Sandiford, a 56-year-old grandmother from Great Britain, has been sentenced to death by firing squad for trying to smuggle over 10 pounds of cocaine into Indonesia.

Ms. Sandiford was allegedly part of a smuggling ring. Two other members of the alleged ring have been sentenced to short prison sentences and a third is currently on trial.

Now whatever your position is on the death penalty, I would hope we could at least agree that there is no crime short of murder for which death should even be an option. Imposing a death sentence for bringing a large quantity of dope into the country is more than a bit excessive.

But then Indonesia is a Muslim nation with a history of brutally putting down rebellions over the years - most notably in East Timor. Not that that has ever stopped our government from writing checks like mad to Indonesian dictators.

When Ms. Sandiford is led out to the wall she will have a hood placed over her head. She will be strapped down to a chair. She will have a target placed over her heart. She will die but the drugs will keep flowing.

In Saudi Arabia they executed a woman who was a minor when she allegedly murdered a baby. In Indonesia they will execute a woman for an offense in which no one was injured.

Sure, we can sit around and criticize those nations as being less than civilized. We can point to them and question whether the defendants ever stood a chance in their criminal (in)justice systems. We can then puff our chests out and claim that we're civilized over here. We give a defendant a chance. Our justice system has enough checks and balances to make certain that a condemned prisoner is guilty before strapping him down and killing him.

But then there's Cameron Willingham who was killed by the State of Texas for a crime he didn't commit. Where was the justice?

There's Troy Davis who was killed by the State of Georgia for a murder he most likely didn't commit. Where was the justice?

Saudi Arabia and Indonesia may very well be outliers. But they are outliers on a continuum that includes us. At our core we are no more civilized than those other nations who choose to murder prisoners. Death is death - whether it takes place in an Arabian desert or on a South Pacific island or in the Piney Woods of East Texas.

We're all the lowest common denominator.

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