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BERLIN, Oct 17 2007 (IPS) - In rich and poor countries alike poverty and the death penalty are almost always inextricably bound together, according to a worldwide survey of experts and human rights activists carried out by journalists as part of the IPS Death Penalty Abolition Project.
"In its 40 years of fighting against the death penalty, Amnesty International (AI) has constantly witnessed the relationship between poverty and the death penalty," Piers Bannister, coordinator of the rights organisation's death penalty team, told IPS. Social standing, wealth or race were the overriding factors in deciding who received the death penalty – not the severity of the crime.
Penal Reform International (PRI), an organisation with a long history of campaigning for death penalty abolition and the rights of prisoners, echoed these views. "Imprisonment and poverty are closely linked," Mel James, PRI policy director said, adding that many countries lacked the technical resources to investigate serious crimes adequately and to "ensure that the innocent are not wrongly accused."
In China, the world's most populous country, the number of executions is a state secret, according to Antoaneta Bezlova, IPS correspondent in Beijing.
Based on public reports, China imposed the most death sentences in 2006. AI estimates that at least 1,010 people were executed in China in 2006.
A revealing glimpse into the "underclass" on death row is seen in Huan Jinting's unique stories of 22 petty criminals on death row, Bezlova reports. "Under Chinese law they pay a very high price for the mistakes they make," Huan writes in his book Letters from Death Row. In China more than 60 types of crime – including many non-violent offences – are punishable by a death sentence.
"Many of Pakistan's death row inmates are innocent or had unfair trials," Mirza Tahir Hussain, a former death row inmate released after an international campaign last year, told IPS correspondent Zofeen Ebrahim. "Most of the convicts finally sent to the gallows are from poor families… The more affluent and influential use coercion to force the victims' family into a compromise and get off the hook," Hussain told Ebrahim.
Even in Japan, one of the world's richest nations, the relationship between poverty and death sentences can be seen in the high number of the 100 or so on death row who cannot afford their own defence and needed court-appointed lawyers, according to IPS correspondent Matsuko Murakami.
"Most of the death row prisoners have no choice but to have such court-appointed defence counsels," Akiko Takada, a leading member of Forum 90, an anti-death penalty rights organisation, told Murakami.
In Malaysia, it is estimated that nearly 90 percent of the 300 people on death row are poor, according to Charles Hector, a human rights lawyer interviewed by IPS correspondent Baradan Kuppusamy.
In the U.S., 95 percent of the 3,350 people currently on death row are poor, Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, told IPS's Adrianne Appel.
"We have a serious issue in the U.S. Our criminal justice system is very sensitive to wealth. Our system treats you better if you are rich and guilty, than if you are poor and innocent," Stevenson said.
In Arab and Muslim countries the death penalty is also linked to poverty, writes Abderrahim El Ouali, IPS correspondent in the region.
Since 2003, "all suicide bombers who were arrested by the police and later sentenced to death have been from poor areas and living in difficult conditions," Mostafa Hannaoui, a member of Morocco's Progress and Socialism Party told El Ouali.
Tahar Boumedra, PRI's Middle East and North Africa regional director, told IPS that the Islamic 'diyat' – under which the accused can pay money to the family of the victim in exchange for freedom – could be used to discriminate against the poor in capital punishment cases.
"This practice is common in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries with a criminal justice system based on Islamic law," Boumedra told IPS. "Those who cannot pay the 'diyat' have the death sentence applied against them."
In Saudi Arabia, a nation that imposes one of the highest numbers of executions in the region, Bannister reports that poor migrant workers from Asia and Africa are most likely to receive a death sentence today.
"Unfamiliar with the legal system, often not understanding the language in which they are questioned and put on trial, such workers are particularly vulnerable to capital punishment. Shockingly, almost half of all the executions in Saudi Arabia are foreign nationals," Bannister said.
In sub-Saharan Africa, Marie-Dominique Parent of PRI reports that few countries in the region provide adequately financed legal aid schemes offering "quality defence" for the poor.
It was completely "illusory" to think that the poor, especially those in far-flung villages, were being afforded fair trials.
In Malawi, for example, any meaningful state legal aid was "impossible", Parent told IPS.
From Africa's most populous state, Nigeria, IPS correspondent Toye Olori reports that human rights activists agree that almost all the estimated 600 people on death row are poor and without adequate legal assistance.
Olawale Fapohunda, a leading human rights lawyer working for an independent organisation providing free legal aid, told Fapohunda that Nigeria's death row inmates wanting to appeal were essentially "without legal representation" because of the absence of a fully financed state legal aid scheme.
Rights groups consider the link between poverty and the denial of competent legal defence one of the most compelling reasons for the abolition of the death penalty.
"It is the right of everyone to stand equal before the legal systems of the world," Bannister said. "Otherwise, there remains the ever-present reality that someone is put to death not for the crime they were convicted of… but because they were poor…"
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