AJMAL KASAB was nervous just before he died, according to a guard at the prison where he was executed in the city of Pune on November 21st. After India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, rejected his clemency plea, Mr Kasab became the first person hanged in India since 2004. The public responded, by and large, with a cheer.
That is understandable. It came just before the fourth anniversary of the November 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, when ten merciless gunmen, who had arrived by sea from Pakistan, left 166 people dead. All but one of the assailants were killed during the horrific 60-hour assault on locals and foreigners at a train station, a Jewish centre, café and two hotels. Only Mr Kasab was taken alive. He was tried, convicted and hanged according to the law.
The vileness of the assault—plus anger at evidence that it was directed by Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terror group linked to Pakistani intelligence—explains why most Indians favoured his death. It may explain, too, Pakistan’s initially muted response. Yet India (like much of South Asia) has largely given up executing people, even as some 400 convicts languish on death row.
Indian law permits executions only in the “rarest of rare” cases, such as Mr Kasab’s. But a move towards abolition is unlikely, even though a small minority has become more vocal about getting rid of it. Along with Pakistan and others, India voted against a UN General Assembly resolution on November 19th calling for a ban on capital punishment.
Instead, calls for more hangings are likely. On November 21st the hardline chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, in effect demanded the execution of a Kashmiri Muslim sentenced to death for his part in a 2001 terrorist attack on India’s parliament. The fate of three Tamils, convicted over the 1991 assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, a former prime minister, may be debated again.
Curiously, other governments also chose this month to scrap informal moratoriums on the death penalty. On November 15th a soldier was hanged for murder in Pakistan, ending a four-year spell without executions there. Human Rights Watch, an activist group, called the execution “odious” and said it worries about another 7,000 Pakistani inmates on death row. In Afghanistan on November 20th and 21st, 14 convicts were hanged, after a change of stance by the president, Hamid Karzai. Executions have been rare since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Officials say the men were criminals, not militants.
Sri Lanka has not hanged anyone for 36 years, yet its government has raised the idea of executing convicted drug barons and child abusers, and may feel encouraged to press on. In Bangladesh, too, a court looking at war crimes committed in the 1971 conflict with Pakistan may hand down capital sentences. For example on November 15th prosecutors demanded the death penalty for a leader of Jamaat-e-Islami, an Islamist opposition party.
No co-ordination is going on between governments, yet similar factors may be at play. Where rulers face elections, they may judge that voters like executions (while foreign grumblers can be shrugged off). Yet in a region where the value of human life is often all too low, a renewed eagerness for the death penalty is unwelcome.–Economist