By Monia Ghanmi
Tunisia is witnessing a major debate on the death penalty. Civil rights advocates are calling for its abolition and supporters of Sharia insist that it is necessary to deter crime.
Twenty-one crimes in Tunisia are punishable by death, either by hanging or firing squad. The penalty has not been enforced since 1991, however, when it was imposed on a defendant convicted of child rape and murder.
Most involved in the debate are well aware that Islamic Sharia calls for the death penalty in instances of murder. But the remaining twenty laws on the books include other crimes such as security violations, assault on public servants, rape associated with violence, treason, mutiny, and sabotage of the railway system.
“It’s a harsh and inhuman penalty,” Lotfi Azzouz, director of Amnesty International Tunisia, said. “Like torture, the death penalty is a severe physical and mental aggression on the person. Neither the physical pain caused by the killing of a human being nor the psychological suffering caused by the prior knowledge of death can be measured.”
The Tunisian chapter of Amnesty International has called for the Constituent Assembly to abolish capital punishment, saying it does not befit the image of the “new Tunisia”.
The president of the NGO, Sondés Garboug, argued that one of the basic rights guaranteed under all international treaties is “the right to live”. She added that the penalty is “not a deterrent” to crime, given that most countries that have already abolished it have actually witnessed a drop in crime rates.
Not all Tunisians are comfortable with the notion of doing away entirely with capital punishment.
“I think that the biggest obstacle impeding the abolition of the death penalty is the Islamic Sharia which approves and uses this punishment,” said Abdallah Louati. “Many people would think that this is an aggression on the Holy Qur’an and a violation of the values of Islam.”
Al-Imam Mohammed al-Saghir al-Faleh expressed his surprise over the increasing calls by some human rights organisations to end the death penalty. He considered these calls to mean an abolition of a Qur’anic verse that reads “the law of equality is prescribed to you in cases of murder”.
“As Muslims, how can we call for its abolition when the Qur’an itself imposes it on us?” he asks. “Civil law can’t introduce any change to Sharia rules.”
Said Mechi concurred, saying: “We can’t accept the abolition of an article of Islamic Sharia in favour of a criminal who committed a crime against people.”
Habib Khedhir, an Ennahda party representative in the Constituent Assembly and general rapporteur for the new constitution, also rejects the idea of abolishing capital punishment.
“If it is proven that the criminal committed a crime punishable by death, I will support the application of the penalty,” he said.
To mark the first anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki changed the sentences of 122 convicted criminals from death to life imprisonment.
While debate on the topic remains quite spirited, many consider the president’s move to be a prelude to the abolition of the death penalty in Tunisia.
After so many years without an execution in Tunisia, some may feel emboldened to end capital punishment once and for all, Judge Mokhtar Yahiaoui told Magharebia.
But they will face strong opposition, he cautioned, especially from those who insist on applying Sharia law.