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Q&A: "More Activism From Women Would Be a Significant Stimulus to the Abolition Cause"

Interview with Sahar Mahdi Al Yassiri

CASABLANCA, Morocco, Nov 21 2007 (IPS) - Professor Sahar Mahdi Al Yassiri is a well-known writer on death penalty abolition in the Islamic world. Al Yassiri, a lawyer by trade, is also a member of several human rights NGOs, including the Right to Life Centre for Death Penalty Abolition in North Africa and the Middle East. In an interview with Abderrahim El Ouali, IPS correspondent in the region, she explains why it is crucial that women play a more active role in the abolition movement:

Professor Sahar Mahdi Al Yassiri of the Right to Life Centre for Death Penalty Abolition in North Africa and the Middle East Credit:

Professor Sahar Mahdi Al Yassiri of the Right to Life Centre for Death Penalty Abolition in North Africa and the Middle East Credit:

Q: The debate over the death penalty abolition in the Muslim and Arab world is mainly dominated by men. What are the reasons for this?

A: You are correct. The limited number of women in our region taking part in the international campaign to abolish the death penalty is due to the small number who are joining abolitionist NGOs. Women concentrate more on women’s rights organisations.

A greater participation of women would provide a significant stimulus to the abolitionist cause. Women are wives and mothers. They are also educators, teachers, journalists, politicians and lawyers. They are actually more influential now in the Arab and Muslim world than at any time before. This means that their active and engaged participation is emphatically required to change the culture of revenge and build a culture of human rights based on the respect of the right to life. It is this principle that has to be recognised as a natural right that cannot be violated whatever the circumstances.

The death penalty is primitive and inhumane. It violates the right to life that all religions and positive law say should be protected and respected.

Q: The effect of a death penalty always reaches far beyond the person who is executed. Do you think the consequences for families are even graver when a woman is executed?

A: The death penalty is an act of extreme savagery, a severe attack on human dignity whether the person executed is a man or a women. But the execution of wives and mothers who take charge of families is especially painful for relatives and children left behind, particularly infants.

Q: Even when the death penalty is applied against men, women may suffer deeply from the consequences. The executed often leave behind widows who then must shoulder all the responsibilities of bringing up their families. What are the consequences of this for the families and, eventually, society?

A: The fundamental legal principle should be that a punishment is for correction and rehabilitation, not revenge extending even to the families of the executed by depriving them of support. In our region the social care systems are inadequate, often sometimes non-existent. This means that an execution has disastrous consequences for the wives, often with children. It deepens their feelings of marginalisation, humiliation and social exclusion and, therefore, is likely to lead to an increase in criminality rather than acting as a deterrent to crime.

Q: What are your plans in the Right to Life Centre to increase awareness about abolition in North Africa and the Middle East?

A: The centre supports activities of civil society abolitionist organisations to spread a culture that opposes the death penalty as a violation of the right to life. We also support social and legal studies on the consequences of the death penalty and the policies of revenge carried out by states against their opponents. Other than this, we communicate with the maximum number possible of political, legal and media personalities to increase awareness about the importance of death penalty abolition.

Q: Honour killing and honour crimes take place in the Arab societies, particularly in the Middle East. As a defender of women&#39s rights, do you think the death penalty should be retained for those who commit "honour killings"?

A: Honour killings in our region – that is the murder of a woman for the perceived "shame" she is alleged to have brought down on a family – are not liable to the death penalty. The punishment for these killings is far too mild, sometimes not exceeding six months imprisonment. The sanctions are less than sentences for any other violence-related crimes. So, we are demanding that sentences for honour killings and honour crimes be heavier. We especially want this when there is no proof that a woman has committed any sexual crime, such as in rape cases or after a woman marries someone the family does not approve of.

We are requesting religious scholars and tribal chiefs intervene and condemn honour crimes. They should put those who commit them on equal footing with other criminals. But we do not support the application of the death penalty for these criminals because that would be a violation of the right to life.

Q: Adultery in Islam is punished by death. But it is impossible to prove, as you need four reliable male witnesses to give evidence that they have observed this happening. How can this be a crime based on Sharia law when it is impossible to meet the requirements of proof?

A: The punishment for adultery – as set out in the Quran – is 100 lashes and not execution. In practice, as you say, it is almost impossible to meet the conditions of proof for carrying out this sentence. We cannot demand that this punishment be eliminated because we cannot change the verses in the Quran.

We know that in the majority of penal codes in the Middle East and North Africa there is no lashing punishment but imprisonment. Moreover, it is up to the person alleging damage to supply proof. It is not possible to bring someone to court for adultery without a complaint from a spouse. It is a civil matter and not one for a state prosecutor.

Q: In the view of most Islamic scholars there are four undisputed cases where the death penalty applies. These are in the case of the Muslim who gives up his religion, adultery, murder and organised highway criminality. In legal systems of the Arab world the application of death penalty is sometimes extended to hundreds of crimes. What justification is there for this, especially when a fair trial in most of these countries is questionable?

A: Let’s discuss these four cases. First, adultery. The punishment for adultery, as I have said, is 100 lashes and not execution. For murder, it is true that the punishment is execution. But this can be set aside by arrangement and when compensation is paid. The Quran teaches that forgiveness is a praiseworthy act and belongs to the faith.

Regarding abandoning Islam, or apostasy, there is no verse in Quran that says that a Muslim who does this should be sentenced to death. In the time of the Prophet Mohamed many did give up their religion but he did not execute any of them.

Organised highway criminality has several retributions in the Quran and not only the death penalty. They would be killed or crucified, or their hands and legs would be cut off, or they would be exiled. The last option – exile – might also mean imprisonment.

Islam considers life as a gift from God that should be preserved. That is why Islam has restricted the ultimate punishment. The legal systems in our region have been extending the death penalty to cases where it should not be applied. I could give as an example Iraqi law. There are 42 cases in which the death penalty applies.

The more people wish to engage in politics, the more human rights are being violated and the more genocide and extra-judicial killings are being committed. When the death penalty is used against people because of their political standpoint and opinions it is the most flagrant violation of the right to free speech and political participation. The death penalty is being applied against people who have committed no violence and have no ties with any terrorist group.

There is much worse to say. Some regimes in our region go beyond executing the so-called "criminal" but also his family members and friends. Sometimes they execute those who take a legal or religious stand against executions. In most cases the death penalty is applied without proof, without thorough investigation, and without giving the accused and his lawyer enough opportunity to mount a defence.

Q: Not one country in your region voted for the resolution calling for a universal moratorium on executions when it was debated in the recent U.N. human rights committee. Do you really think there is a possibility that the death penalty could be abolished in North Africa and the Middle East in the near future?

A: The use of the death penalty harks back to the primitive practices of slavery and torture. We should not despair in our efforts to achieve abolition. Politicians, jurists, sociologists, journalists, judges and religious scholars should carry on fighting to spread a culture of human rights. They should focus on that side of our religions, cultures and social heritage that supports the human right to life. We all need to fight to change radically the culture of revenge that both people and governments are practicing.

Certainly, murder and killing are an inheritance that can be traced far back in the history of mankind. It will require a long time and a great effort to change this.

I would like to say this truth: we are not too late to start a campaign for the abolition of the death penalty and to spread this across the entire Arab and Muslim world. We are going hand in hand with the evolving worldwide tendency towards abolition. The abolitionist movement has just started in our region and we hope it will succeed.

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