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Decriminalizing the attempt to commit suicide

Published : Thursday, 25 October, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 746
Jahid Al Mamun

The Penal Code, 1860 contains a provision which indicates that the commission of an act will not amount to any offence but the attempt of that act is punishable. This interesting provision of law is regarding 'Suicide'. The term 'Suicide' may be defined as the act of intentionally killing oneself. The non-fatal, self-directed, potentially injurious behaviour with the intent to cause death may be termed as 'attempt to commit suicide'. Committing Suicide is not an offence, but Attempt to commit suicide is a punishable offence under Section 309 of the Code. The rationale behind the non-criminalization of suicide is that the person committing suicide cannot be reached at all.

Section 309 says that a person attempting to commit suicide 'shall' be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both. It is to be noted here that the Section uses 'shall' instead of using 'may' to punish the offender. That means the offender must undergo the punishment of one-year imprisonment, and the judge has no option but to sentence him with imprisonment. But the practical scenario is quite different in Bangladesh.
Last year, a 26-year-old boy named Sumon Kumar Paul poured Kerosene on his body and burnt himself in front of his girlfriend during an altercation with her in the capital's Sobhanbagh area. The police were aware of the incident but did not take any step against the attempter. It is an example of many such incidents. We know of many such incidents from print and electronic media. But do we know about any incident of a trial of such offence or any precedent of punishment? In maximum circumstances, no legal steps are taken against the survived person who attempted to commit suicide considering social and humane circumstances.

According to Global Health Observatory (GHO) data of the World Health Organization (WHO), in 2015 Bangladesh was in the 10th position in the list of countries with the highest rate of suicides. Nearly 8 persons in 100000 commit suicide. This rate is rising worldwide. Bangladesh is not exempted from it. The attempt to commit suicide is higher than the actual commission. The WHO estimated that by the year 2020, the number of suicide attempters will be 10 to 20 times higher than actual suicides.

Though in practice there is no application of section 309 of the Penal Code in Bangladesh, the provision should not be in the code. Because, mental health disorders i.e. depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, personality disorders resulting from substance abuse, childhood abuse or trauma, family history of suicide, previous suicide attempts, having a chronic disease etc. play key roles in committing suicide. Attempt to commit suicide is the manifestation of a diseased condition of mind. Hence, the survivors need treatment, counseling and care rather than punishment. It is ironic that an individual attempting suicide can easily escape from human punishment if he succeeds. But if he fails, the law gleefully sends him to mingle with criminals instead of sending him to psychiatric clinics for seeking medical help. The person who has attempted to commit suicide shall not disclose his attempt with a view to avoiding the punishment.  Even he shall be afraid of availing psychiatric treatment.

Many countries in the world have decriminalized attempted suicide. Germany was the first country to decriminalize attempted suicide in 1751. All the countries of Europe and North America are also in this league.  Some countries like Scotland, on the other hand, have no law regarding this as they never considered attempted suicide to be a crime.
Finally, it may be summed up that in Bangladesh although there is a law to punish suicide attempters; the application of the provision is very rare. So, one might question the rationale behind the existence of such a provision in our legal system. Thus, the Parliament of Bangladesh should immediately take steps to repeal section 309 of the Penal Code and should enact laws to rehabilitate the victims.

It is pertinent to conclude with citation of the recommendation of the Indian Supreme Court in the case P. Rathinam v. Union of India (1994 AIR 1844),
"......section 309 needs to be effaced from our statute books to humanize our penal laws. It is a cruel and inhuman provision, and it may result in punishing a person again (double) who has suffered agony and would be undergoing ignominy because of his failure to commit suicide."

Jahid Al Mamun is an LL.M. student at University of Dhaka









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