The Death Penalty And Religion

THERE is no iota of doubt that religious considerations
have over the years had an extensive influence on the
death penalty. In fact, some schools of thought have
asserted that the death penalty has its origin in human
sacrifices. The first recognised laws on the death penalty
dates back to the 18th Century BC in the Babylonian King
Hammurabi’s code, who reigned between 1792-1750 BC.
The code prescribes the death penalty for over 20 different
offences. The Mosaic laws of the Old Testament drew
a lot from the Hammurabi code, especially its stance of ‘an
eye for an eye’ and ‘a tooth for a tooth’. The Judeo Christian
Bible prescribes capital punishment for crimes like magic,
blasphemy, murder, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, incest
and rape. In Numbers 15:32-36; while the Israelites were in
the wilderness under the leadership of Moses, a man was
found gathering woods on a Sabbath day, a day designated
by the laws of Moses as a ‘No work day’. He was arrested and
brought to Moses. He was detained to determine what could
be done to him. According to the account, The Creator told
Moses to put the man to death; that the entire congregation
were to throw stones at him outside their camp. Thus the
man was executed.
Capital punishment has been a part of the Islamic Law as
well. The two prominent parts of Islamic Law are the Sharia
and the Figh. The Sharia is the sacred Laws and ways of life
contained in the Koran and Sunna. The Figh is Islamic Jurisprudence
– the legal ruling of Muslim scholars derived from
the Sharia. Furthermore, Islamic penal law is compartmentalised
into four groups, to wit: Houdoud, Quissas, Diya and
Tazir. A closer look on the Islamic view point reveals that the
death penalty is an integral part of Islamic Law. Even in Nigeria, the chorus of the abolitionist’s school to end the death
penalty once approached its crescendo when there were talks
to send a bill to the National Assembly to put an end to that
relic of barbarism. Those moves were dramatically halted by
the opinion of some of our Muslim brothers from the North,
who alleged that putting an end to the death penalty would
offend their religious sensibilities as they affirmed that Islam
favours the death penalty.
But under the principles of evolution, ideas and concepts
and even laws though cast on stone have had to give way to
something else. This has been greatly noticed in the Judeo
Christian stance on the death Penalty. The prophet Ezekiel
gave a changed and evolved view of the Creator when he said
‘as I Live, saith the lord God, I have no pleasure in the death
of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his ways and
live.’ (Ezekiel 33:11). Even the Vatican which is seen as the
custodian of the Christian tradition and religion now abhors
strongly the death penalty, in spite of Biblical prescriptions on
the death penalty. Pope Paul VI had in 1969 formally banned
the death penalty. In fact on October 11, 2017, Pope Francis
made a speech to the pontifical council for the promotion
of the new Evangelisation, which gathered to celebrate the
25th anniversary of the release of the catholic catechism
promulgated by Pope St. John Paul II. There, he said that the
death penalty was contrary to the Gospel, no matter how it
was carried out. He said “it is, in itself, contrary to the Gospel,
because a decision is voluntarily made to suppress a human
life, which is always sacred in the eyes of the creator and of
whom, in the last analyses, only God can be the true Judge and
guarantor.” He said that it was inappropriate, no matter how
serious the crime. He further said that only a “partial vision can think of the deposit of
faith as something static” –
thus recognising the place
of evolution in Laws.
In a case which I took part
in prosecuting at the High
court, The state V. Christopher
Touyo and others,
the steward of an Irish Nun
living in Nigeria conspired
with co-accused and killed
her and stole her Peugeot
504 car. They were arrested
and charged with murder.
The accused persons were
found guilty and sentenced
to death. As soon as the
sentence was pronounced,
the Holy See wrote to the
government indicting that they did not subscribe to the death
penalty. The Irish Government also said the same thing. The
family of the Irish Nun visited and also expressed their desire
that the accused should not be killed. It is submitted that this
trend of evolution of viewpoints noticeable in the Christian
attitude to the death penalty as exhibited by the Vatican, is
also possible under Islamic law. Under the Doctrine of Necessity
called Darura, the Sharia has among Islamic nations been
ignored or amended when circumstances dictate that. Human
rights activists from the Arab world met in Tunis in October
1995 to discuss the death penalty. Experts on religion,
philosophy and criminal law in Arab states attended. At the
end of the meeting, they adopted a declaration affirming its
shared commitment to the abolishment of the death penalty
as a strategic move. They stated that “within the Arab civilisation
and cultural background, no real impediments exist and
obstruct the evolution of secular legislations in the process of
setting up limits to the death penalty and abolishing it.” There
was therefore a call for Arab states to adopt the 2nd optional
protocol to the international covenant on civil and political
rights, which constitute an international legal commitment