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DEATH PENALTY: Final Quarter Yet To Be Convinced

Petar Hadji-Ristic

ROME, Jul 24 2008 (IPS) - Nine countries have taken major steps towards jettisoning the death penalty over the past 18 months, leaving just a quarter of nations left to abolish the practice, according to the 2008 report from the group Hands off Cain.

“The worldwide trend towards abolition for the last decade was again confirmed in 2007 and the first six months of 2008. There are currently 149 countries and territories that, to different extents, have decided to renounce the death penalty,” according to the organisation’s annual report, The Death Penalty Worldwide, presented at a press conference in Rome Thursday.

Forty-nine countries now retain the death penalty. Twenty-six of these carried executions last year.

“There have been so many positive moves towards abolition of the death penalty in the course of 2007 and the first six months of this year,” Elisabetta Zamparutti, editor of the report, told IPS.

“Nine countries – Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Comoros, South Korea, Guyana, Zambia, Cook Islands and Albania – have moved in different ways to become abolitionists,” she said. Five of these – Rwanda, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Cook Islands and Albania – have now abolished the death penalty for all crimes.

In Africa, Zamparutti cited developments short of total abolition in Burundi, Gabon, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania. Amnesties were also handed down in Cameroon, Congo, Ghana, Nigeria and Morocco. In 2007, no executions were recorded in Nigeria and Uganda, although there were at least nine in 2006.

“We are seeing many positive moves in Africa,” she said.

But in 2007 the number of executions worldwide increased to at least 5,851, compared to a minimum of 5,635 in 2006, Hands off Cain reported.

This was due to a big increase in executions in Iran and Saudi Arabia, ranked second and third on the rights organisation’s “podium of inhumanity”. In 2007, Iran was known to have executed at least 355 people, a one-third increase over 2006. Saudi Arabia – the country with the highest number of executions per capita – executed at least 166 people, four times the number in 2006.

“In Iran the situation is worsening by the day,” Zamparutti said. At least 127 executions have been recorded up to the end of June this year.

“In 2007, and in the first months of 2008, death sentences and executions for essentially political motives were confirmed in Iran,” according to the report. In 2007, Iran also executed at least seven juvenile offenders, Saudi Arabia three, and Pakistan and Yemen one each.

Most of the world’s executions in 2007 – at least 5,000 – were registered in China, according to the report.

Hands off Cain acknowledged that in some countries, such as China and Vietnam, official statistics on the death penalty are a state secret. Local newspapers and independent sources monitored the death penalty but “only a part of the phenomenon.” From some countries, such as North Korea, there was no information at all.

“The U.N resolution did ask states that use the death penalty to provide information on the number of their executions and death sentences. But we are calling now for a U.N. special envoy on the death penalty. We think this would be very useful (in monitoring the numbers precisely),” Zamparutti said.

The rights organisation described the passing of the U.N. General Assembly resolution in December 2007 calling for a moratorium on executions as a “historic achievement.” The resolution was passed by 104 votes to 54, with 29 abstentions.

The resolution came after 15 years of campaigning by the organisation, including hunger strikes by its president Marco Pannella, to put pressure on the Italian government to be more energetic in tabling the resolution before the world body.

“The real work begins now,” the report says. “It is necessary to double our efforts so that this success doesn’t wear out and fade away. It is necessary to use the moratorium to finally arrive at abolishing the death penalty completely.”

Former Italian prime minister Romano Prodi, credited with successfully getting the resolution before the U.N., was presented the Hands off Cain’s ‘Abolitionist of the Year 2008’ award.

At the presentation, the organisation called for a moratorium on the death penalty for Tariq Aziz, Iraq’s former deputy prime minister, now on trial in Baghdad on charge of executing a group of merchants in 1992.

“This is an important non-violent initiative for us,” said Zamparutti, who joined a hunger strike with Pannella and other members of Hands off Cain five days ago to bring attention to the “bogus” trial.

“It is not clear what is going on. We are calling for the Italian parliament to send a delegation to meet with Tariq Aziz to understand the situation better.”

The organisation also has an online appeal for the Tariq Aziz moratorium.

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