Reflections On Capital Punishment, Cries From Death Row

The gallows loom
The gallows loom
Yara Sallam


CAIRO — I had never really thought much about my position on the death penalty. After I watched the film The Life of David Gale, I started to ask myself how one might possibly work on an issue as difficult as this. I don't remember if I watched the movie before or after going to prison. Some things are confused in my head. Nor do I remember when it was that I got used to the screams of the women in al-Makhsous (the death penalty ward, makhsous meaning ‘special").

The Askari (military) ward, where I was held, was separated from the death penalty ward by the disciplinary room. Every time they took a woman to be hanged, we all heard them calling her name and wailing. It was the women in that ward who taught me that everything in this world passes, even if your cellmate, with whom you share your food every day, is taken to be hanged.

The next day they would put on the Quran, and after a while, when the rest of the prisoners had paid their condolences, everything would return to how it was before — jokes, laughter and chatter.

They told us that al-Makhsous was full, and that nobody had been hanged since the beginning of the revolution. But they had taken a woman to be executed one or two days before I entered the prison, on June 23, 2014. I think by the time I was released 15 months later, all the women in al-Makhsous had been hanged, and the ward had filled up again. The current president does not love life.

I remember a conversation with one of the prison guards. She told us that not all the officers have hard hearts, not all of them can watch the executions. At the time, I didn't comprehend the incongruence between their belief in the legitimacy of their work and their inability to watch the consequences of it. Even if the killing is conducted lawfully, a so-called punishment for a crime committed, when it comes down to it, accepting what is happening must always be difficult.

There was a show. They searched al-Makhsous and things went from there. They sent a guard to bring two prisoners, claiming they wanted to give them back the things they had confiscated from them. After some time, everyone began to worry. It turned out they took two this time to hang them, but they didn't take them straight from the ward as they do every time. Maybe they were worried their cellmates would cause problems.

I am trying to recall the details, but my memory fails me. Or maybe I don't want to remember. Al-Makhsous has 10 cells. Each is supposed to accommodate one person, but because of the large number of prisoners, they put two women in one cell. Every cell displays the names of the two prisoners inside. Instructions come from the prison administration informing the prison who will be hanged and when. The prison closes early. An officer and guards enter the ward. They know which cell they will open. They take the prisoner to be hanged and leave. Women start wailing and we try to hear the name that is being called to know who is going to die.

Their stories evade me. I only remember the two sisters who killed tuk tuk drivers in order to take the tuk tuks and sell them. They killed more than one and were arrested. One of them confessed, and was praying to God, asking him to forgive her. The other sister said she didn't do anything and was wrongfully convicted. Inside prison it is impossible to learn who really committed the crime for which she is accused and who has been wronged. So, how can a judge be confident that the person he is going to sentence to death really deserves to die?

I broke a molar tooth in prison and went to the dentist in the prison hospital. I heard the woman doctor tell the guard, "I don't want anyone to come to me from al-Makhsous. I will go there myself to determine if anyone there needs treatment. They often come to the clinic and nothing is wrong with them. This is not right." I think to myself, maybe they do this to get out of the ward, to walk in the sun, to see the sky and other people. Prisoners on death row do not walk around like the rest of the prisoners. Al-Makhsous is a closed ward. They are allowed to walk outside their cells, but only inside the ward. The only time those women leave the ward is when they go to the hospital or have a visit — though their visits are restricted to once a month, not every 15 days like other prisoners.

We recently marked the "15th World Day against the Death Penalty," or the international day for the defense of life. Right now, a family might be finding out that their child had been put to death. We must stop this crime and not life.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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