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DEATH PENALTY: Arab States Pushed Towards Abolition

Cam McGrath

ALEXANDRIA, Sep 22 2010 (IPS) - Rights activists met in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria this week to discuss and adopt effective strategies to persuade Arab regimes to abolish the death penalty.

The two-day gathering of Arab and international civil society groups aimed to build upon the recommendations of the first Alexandria conference in May 2008, which urged Arab countries to enact a moratorium on executions as a step towards abolishing the death penalty.

Capital punishment is legislated in all Arab countries throughout the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, and over 860 death sentences were handed down last year.

While Arab states such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have not carried out any executions in nearly two decades, their courts continue to pronounce death sentences for various offences. Other countries, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, mandate the death penalty for dozens of crimes ranging from murder to treason. Executions are carried out regularly by hanging, beheading or by a firing squad.

“While most of the world is going toward abolishing the death penalty, the MENA region has the highest rate of death penalty per capita — even higher than China,” said Mervat Reshmawy, a human rights consultant.

Abolitionists attending the Alexandria conference denounced the use of capital punishment, arguing that it was an ineffective deterrent to crime and constituted a form of state-sanctioned revenge. They pointed out that in most Arab countries capital crimes are tried in special courts, often using confessions extracted under torture and without guarantees of a fair trial.

They also sought to expose the contradictions between Shariah (Islamic law) – – frequently cited as a mandate for capital punishment — and the way in which the death penalty is applied in the region.

“Some Arab countries have over 350 crimes punishable by the death penalty, while the Qu’ran proscribes it only in five cases,” said Mohamed Habbash, a Syrian Islamic scholar. “Even still, Shariah provides alternatives to the death penalty, including compensation and forgiveness.”

The regional conference, co-organised by Penal Reform International (PRI), the Arab Centre for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, and the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, provided an opportunity to strengthen collaboration among local NGOs and national coalitions, and to build a regional coalition against the use of the death penalty.

Participants shared experiences and lessons learned since the last meeting in Alexandria, and formulated advocacy strategies to persuade Arab regimes to comply with United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Resolution 62/149.

The resolution, adopted by the UNGA in December 2007, calls for an immediate moratorium on executions and urges countries to strike the death penalty from their statute books. It was reaffirmed a year later by Resolution 63/430.

Algeria was the only Arab country in the MENA region to vote in favour of the two resolutions. Bahrain, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and United Arab Emirates abstained from voting in 2008 — a move some analysts interpret as a sign they might be reconsidering the use of capital punishment.

The UN General Assembly is scheduled to meet in November to vote on a third resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

“We hope to see more Arab countries vote in favour of the moratorium resolution,” PRI’s regional director Taghreed Jaber told IPS. “But even if we only manage to convince a few more Arab states to abstain from voting, it would be seen as a positive.”

Rights groups and national coalitions are focusing their efforts on encouraging parliaments in countries “on the cusp” to shift their position in favour of a moratorium. Morocco, which has not carried out an execution since 1993, has given signals that it may be prepared to formalise its de facto moratorium. There is also optimism that Tunisia, whose delegates were absent during voting on earlier resolutions, will lend its weight to the upcoming UNGA resolution.

“Tunisia has yet to turn up to vote; even just to abstain would be a victory,” said David Nichols of rights group Amnesty International. “Unfortunately, there is far too much pressure from other countries around it (for it) to vote positive.”

Egypt, which handed down at least 269 death sentences last year, staunchly rejected both UNGA resolutions and has reportedly worked behind the scenes to derail abolition campaigns. Saudi Arabia and Syria are also regarded as retentionist states exerting influence in the region.

While not politically binding, the UNGA moratorium resolutions are seen as a demonstration of a growing consensus against the use of capital punishment. Some 106 countries voted in favour of the last resolution, and the positions of several Arab states appear to be evolving in favour of a moratorium.

“We observed changes in the voting between the first and second resolution, and we are hoping for Arab states’ positions to change again in the third,” said Jaber. “Jordan, for instance, rejected the moratorium the first time, abstained the second time, and — we hope — will vote in favour of it in the third.”

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