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DEATH PENALTY: On Trial for Their Lives – by Public Opinion

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Feb 26 2010 (IPS) - The death penalty remains an apparently fixed feature in many societies because it enjoys the approval or consent of a large majority of the population, or is based on supposed ancestral values or traditions.

The Fourth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, held in Geneva Feb. 24-26, devoted often heated sessions to countering such beliefs, regarded as a hindrance to the eradication of capital punishment.

Political leaders, experts and activists from around the globe meeting at the World Congress said the results of public opinion polls are often imprecise and unreliable, and that reputable scientists have said such surveys are “highly susceptible to manipulation by the elite.”

The London-based human rights organisation Amnesty International (AI) has reported that as many as 36 countries retain the death penalty in law, although they have no intention whatsoever of executing persons in practice, and there are no signs of any disturbances in the social order.

“The argument that they must retain it to satisfy public opinion needs to be seriously challenged in these countries,” said Roger Hood, a professor of criminal law at Britain’s Oxford University.

Hood said he was told by a scholar from Togo early in 2008 that the government of this West African country could not abolish capital punishment because of strong public sentiment in its favour, in spite of 30 years having passed since the last execution.

“Yet six months later, Togo did successfully abolish it for all crimes,” he said.

Regarding public support for executions, “we all know that the outcome of opinion polls depends on the way the questions are asked, and on the day’s news,” said the Rapporteur on the death penalty for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Renate Wohlwend.

In Japan, where 15 people were executed in 2008, the government released the results of an opinion poll about the justice system earlier this month.

Respondents were given three options from which to choose: “the death penalty should be abolished unconditionally”; “in some cases, the death penalty cannot be avoided”; or “I don’t know/it depends.”

The second answer, that sometimes the death penalty is inevitable, was chosen by 85.6 percent of the interviewees, and in a separate question 51.5 percent said that violent crimes would increase if the death penalty were abolished.

But there have been numerous criticisms against this survey method, including the setting of questions, said Maiko Tagusari, a lawyer with the Centre for Prisoners’ Rights in Japan.

“But first of all we have to point out that this so-called ‘public support’ is brought about by the government’s secrecy policy and failure to disclose the necessary information about not only the death penalty itself, but also the penal system as a whole,” said Tagusari.

Amnesty International maintains that by keeping executions secret, many governments ensure that there is no effective public debate on the death penalty.

“In 2009, the reported murder cases in Japan hit the lowest number since 1945. But people believe that heinous crimes are increasing,” Tagusari said.

Death row inmates are never notified of their execution dates, and no one knows how the next person to be executed is selected, or how many inmates were wrongly convicted and executed, she said.

“Can you imagine that the method of execution by hanging has not been changed for nearly 140 years? This would never happen in a democratic society where the public is provided with the necessary information,” Tagusari said.

“The European experience has shown that abolition is an issue where parliamentarians must lead, not follow, public opinion,” said rapporteur Wohlwend.

“In Europe no governing party has lost an election due to abolition. The prior introduction of a moratorium on executions has helped to reassure the general public that stopping executions does not mean rising crime,” she said.

“In most of Europe, following the lead of courageous politicians, the general public has now embraced abolition of the death penalty,” Wohlwend said.

The death penalty is intrinsically a cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and therefore cannot be justified with the excuse that there is public pressure for it to be used, Hood said.

He quoted a Chinese criminologist, professor Mo Hongxian, who put the issue succinctly when she insisted that “public opinion does not necessarily represent justice.”

Mo said she hoped that a policy of severely restricting the application of the death penalty in China “would reduce the public’s inclination towards revenging justice against crimes.”

China was the country which handed down the greatest number of death sentences in 2008, a total of 7,003. In the same year it executed 1,718 people, more than the rest of the world combined, according to Amnesty International estimates.

However, Hood recalled that at the U.N. Human Rights Council session in March 2007, China’s representative, La Yifan, said the death penalty’s scope of application was to be reviewed, and it was expected that this scope would be reduced, with the final aim of abolition.

Regarding the validity of arguments that “Asian values” and “Chinese culture” are reasons for the persistence of the death penalty, Hood cited the cases of Hong Kong and Macau, both enclaves with a majority Chinese population which supported capital punishment before it was abolished by the British and Portuguese colonial regimes, respectively.

After their return to Chinese sovereignty, “there have been no serious calls or pressure in Hong Kong and Macau for reintroduction” of the death penalty, and furthermore there has been “a continuing decline in the homicide rate,” said Hood, quoting studies by Chinese and Western experts.

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