On July 26, the body of Nirmala Panta was discovered in a sugarcane field in Bhimdutta Municipality-18, Kanchanpur. Panta, just 13 years old, had been brutally raped and murdered. The heinous crime naturally outraged the nation and the police worked overtime to bring the culprits to justice. Twenty-six days later, on August 20, the Central Investigation Bureau (CIB) of the Nepal Police arrested one Dilip Kumar Bista for the rape and murder and paraded the 41-year-old before the media.
Area locals, however, were skeptical at first and then incensed at what they considered was a miscarriage of justice. They alleged that Bista’s criminal past and mental disability made him an easy scapegoat for police who didn’t have any other leads. Protests against the police have since escalated, with police firing tear gas and clashing with protesters. Yesterday, on August 23, eight people were hurt as police fired rubber bullets at protesters and imposed a curfew.
As reports of rape have increased in recent years, so has outrage against the prevalence of this most heinous of crimes. Periodic protests against rape and in support of victims can be seen across the country. On August 18, activists staged a protest at Maitighar Mandala demanding the death penalty for rapists. This is a common refrain among the public, activists, intellectuals and even lawmakers, who argue that capital punishment against rapists will deter future crimes and serve the cause of justice.
It is quite tempting to use the death penalty to send a ‘strong message’ to perpetrators, but it begs the question: is capital punishment actually a deterrent for crime? Much research has shown little to no correlation between capital punishment and deterrence. Where law enforcement is weak and investigation flawed, biased or subservient to powerful political satraps, capital punishment runs the risk sending the wrong man to the gallows. As in the currently unfolding Nirmala Panta case, if locals are right and the police have arrested the wrong man, then the death penalty would allow no room for redress in case a mistake has been made.
Rape is a crime that stirs emotions among the public. In a country like Nepal, where rape reporting is low and even police refuse investigation and prosecution, instead advocating for agreements between the victim and perpetrator, the cry for justice is understandable. After all, it is not enough that justice is done; justice must also be seen to have been done. Responding to public sentiment, the new criminal code has increased sentences for rape, raising it to 16-20 years imprisonment for the rape of a minor below 10 years of age.
Punishment, however, does not treat the cause, only the symptom. Focus should lie on preventing crimes in the first place, instead of punishment after the fact. The causes of crime are complex and it takes much effort to change people’s and society’s perspectives. This is not a reason for taking the easy way out, especially when the easy way has been proven to be ineffective.
In instances like the Nirmala Panta, police must proceed with caution and sensitivity, not pursue a conviction simply because of public outrage. The public, too, must allow the police room to work and not demand immediate arrests. Demands for capital punishment, however, must be abandoned. We as a nation have decided to put the death penalty behind us and we should not look back.