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INT’L WOMEN’S DAY: Death Penalty Rare for Women, But On the Rise in Iran and China

Alison Langley*

FRANKFURT, Mar 7 2006 (IPS) - A 17-year-old Iranian girl known only as Nazanin fought off two men trying to rape her, and is said to have fatally stabbed one of them. In January, almost two years after the incident, a Tehran court sentenced her to death.

A 17-year-old Iranian girl known only as Nazanin fought off two men trying to rape her, and is said to have fatally stabbed one of them. In January, almost two years after the incident, a Tehran court sentenced her to death.

Nazanin is one of at least 19 women believed to be on the death row in Iran, says Elisabetta Zamparutti, head of Hands Off Cain, a Rome-based organisation working to abolish the death penalty around the world.

While the number of women facing the death sentence appears to be on the rise in some countries, like Iran and China, worldwide, women are less likely than men to be condemned to death.

Women commit fewer heinous crimes like murder, for which death can be the ultimate sentence, and there is a cultural repugnance to killing a woman that does not hold for men.

“Legally there is no discrimination” between men and women in Egypt, Amr Abdel Motaal, senior partner at a Cairo law firm, told IPS. “Males and females are equal before the law, although judges, who are typically men, tend to be more lenient towards female defendants. The number of women who receive the death penalty is very small.”

Only China, Iran, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and Vietnam regularly execute women without any apparent gender bias, according to the Capital Punishment U.K. website. The penal codes of most countries prohibit the execution of pregnant women, who are either reprieved at once or, in theory, liable to be executed after they have given birth.

While overall the number of executions around the world is seeing a downward trend, according to Amnesty International, they appear to be increasing in a few countries, notably China and Iran, where Nazanin lives.

Following the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last year, the number of executions in Iran has increased sharply. According to news articles in the Iranian media compiled by Hands Off Cain and Human Rights Watch, between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20 alone the judicial authorities executed 10 prisoners and condemned another 21 to death. Last year at least two Iranian women were executed and another 13 were given death sentences, Zamparutti said. Of those, two, Delara Darabi and a young woman known only as Fakhteh, were minors like Nazanin, Zamparutti said.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights prohibit the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed before the age of 18. These treaties also prohibit the use of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishments. Iran is a party to both treaties, Zamparutti said, but appears to ignore them.

The death penalty continues to be used extensively and arbitrarily in China, says Amnesty International. People were executed for non-violent crimes such as tax fraud and embezzlement, as well as for drug offences and violent crimes. Because authorities keep national statistics on death sentences and executions secret, AI researchers said it is difficult to come by accurate figures. Based on the available public reports, the human rights watchdog estimates that at least 3,400 people had been executed and at least 6,000 sentenced to death in 2004. There is no breakdown in the number of women killed by the Chinese state.

The reasons women are sentenced to death and the way they are killed sometimes differ from men. Of the 13 women in Iran sentenced to death, three face stoning as punishment for alleged adultery. Stoning is a particularly painful way to die. “Only women are sentenced to death by stoning for adultery,” Zamparutti said. Men, on the other hand, are hanged, if they are sentenced to death for that crime at all.

Ma Weihua, a woman facing capital punishment on drugs charges in China, was reportedly forced to undergo an abortion in police custody in February 2005, apparently so that she could be put to death “legally,” according to Human Rights Watch. Chinese law prevents the execution of pregnant women.

In the wake of public protests, Ma’s trial eventually was suspended after her lawyer provided details of the forced abortion, HRW said, and she was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment.

There are 55 women currently on death row in the United States. Frances Newton was killed by the southern state of Texas on Sep. 14, 2005. Since capital punishment was reinstated in the United States in 1976 after a three-year suspension, 11 female offenders have been put to death. Still, death sentences and actual executions for female offenders are rare in comparison to male offenders in the United States. In fact, women are more likely to be dropped out of the system the further the capital punishment system progresses. While women account for one in ten murder arrests, only one in 97 are actually executed.

In a 1983 ruling, India’s Supreme Court said the death sentence should be awarded only in “the rarest of rare cases” but the country has yet to abolish the death penalty altogether. Capital punishment is carried out by hanging, without exception, and this method is considered to be devoid of suffering and humiliation – it is never done publicly. The last woman to be executed in India was in the 1920s.

In Latin America, the death penalty is rare for men and women alike. Only Cuba and Guatemala still have the death penalty on the books for criminal offences, beyond crimes in the military arena or in times of war. The last time Cuba implemented capital punishment was in 2003: three men were condemned to death for stealing a boat in an attempt to escape the island. And Guatemala is debating the abolition of capital punishment altogether.

(*With reporting contributed by other IPS correspondents.)

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