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RIGHTS: Not Quite Islamic Executions

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Mar 29 2010 (IPS) - The Middle East leads the world in executions after China, says an annual Amnesty International report released Tuesday.

“The Middle East and North Africa have the highest per capita rate of executions in the world, according to our figures,” Phillip Luther, deputy director for the region with Amnesty, tells IPS.

The Middle East; must be Islam then, most people would imagine. Wrong.

“If you take Egypt, or Syria, or Yemen, or Iraq, the vast majority of death sentences and executions carried out in those countries have nothing to do with Islamic law in any sense,” says Luther. “They are on the basis of civil codes – often inherited, and the death penalty provisions within it – from the previous colonial period.” Most executions are carried out under the penal code for offences related to drugs and violent crimes, Luther says.

So are executions in non-Islamic countries such as the U.S. and India, to say nothing of China, which is believed to execute thousands a year that it lets the world know nothing about. And Amnesty acknowledges as much, challenging China this year to produce a figure rather than guessing one of its own.

But religion is not behind most executions in the Islamic world of the Middle East and North Africa – and not even in countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, says Luther.

“If you look at the majority of those sentenced and executed (in Saudi Arabia and Iran), they are executed on the basis of penal codes. Those sentenced under Islamic law are very few.”

In Iran, many have been charged with enmity against god, “which clearly has a religious sanction,” says Luther, “but which is used in a political way against people who are perceived by the state of rebelling against the state.” The motives in Iran are more political than religious because among those executed are a disproportionate number of political prisoners, or members of ethnic or religious minorities.

The sanction comes in the name of religion, but is basically a handle used by the state for its own political ends, and not because it’s out to create Islam justice in society.

Amnesty International recorded 388 executions in Iran last year, but says the true figure could be higher. “At least 14 executions took place in public,” the report says. “In one eight-week period between the presidential election on Jun. 12 and the inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a second term as President on Aug. 5, Amnesty International recorded 112 executions; by contrast, in the five-and-a-half months between Jan. 1 and Jun. 12, at least 196 executions had taken place.”

Many countries within the region such as Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Lebanon have maintained a long-term moratorium on the death penalty of at least ten years.

The Amnesty report lists 624 executions across the Middle East and North Africa last year. There are no definite figures over earlier years to compare this with, but the general trend in the region is downward, says Luther. “Only seven countries in this region carried out executions last year (Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen). In terms of the number of countries, that trend is going down, as it is across the world as a whole.”

At the same time there is a louder legislative debate in many of these countries to at least reduce the number of crimes punishable by death. “In Lebanon the ministry of justice itself is campaigning to end the death penalty,” says Luther. “Algeria was one of the co-sponsors in the U.N. General Assembly in 2008 for a call for a global moratorium, the first Middle East or North African state to do so.”

But even though executions are carried out mostly under the penal code, they are at their highest in Iran and Saudi Arabia. “In Saudi Arabia, the authorities continued to execute at an alarming rate,” the Amnesty report says. “At least 69 people were publicly beheaded during 2009.

“At the end of 2009 Amnesty International knew of at least 141 people on death row in Saudi Arabia, including at least 104 foreign nationals, mostly from developing countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Prisoners are sentenced in largely secret and unfair trials, often without a defence lawyer, and so the true figures for those under sentence of death are believed to be much higher.”

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