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DEATH PENALTY: On Popular Demand

Sanjay Suri

LONDON, Sep 27 2011 (IPS) - The image endures of the death penalty in force across the Arab world because it is considered somehow Islamic, and because most regimes are undeniably autocratic. But campaigners on the ground say the death penalty might just be in place because the people want it. Which would make it in essence a democratic institution.

“If you look closer, it’s a tribal issue,” says Tanya Awad Ghorra from the Academic University for Nonviolence and Human Rights in the Arab World (AUNOHR) based in Beirut. “Because our world is tribal. We still have tribes, the traditions, the revenge…it’s in the mentality. So that’s why they try to stick it to the Quran but if you look closely it’s a way of reducing direct revenge between tribes.”

The regimes in these countries are in that case only listening to the voices of their people. “Yes, we live in a region where revenge is a natural thing, extreme revenge is still in the culture, so even though there have been many campaigns in Arab countries, none have signed the (2007) U.N. moratorium because they have an issue with their population. Because in public opinion revenge is a legitimate thing to ask.”

“Ask people,” Ghorra told IPS in an interview at a conference called in London by Penal Reform International (PRI) last week. “To them it’s natural. Yes, it’s a demand.” To someone whose family member has been killed, “it’s my right, it’s my tribal right, it’s my culture, it’s my background, it’s my history to get revenge. I don’t get it, you want the government to get it for me, I’m fine with that. But I want my revenge.”

The Beirut-based AUNOHR has been campaigning actively against the death penalty for years. But Ghorra says it’s an uphill struggle. “You can campaign a lot, you can have the support of all the Europeans, of the world around you, but if you don’t focus on creating public opinion, on educating people, I think we’ll be stuck for long years.”

Lebanon, which saw a National Campaign to Abolish the Death Penalty, has seen some success. After the wars with Israel the government “pulled out a long forgotten law that ‘the killer is killed’, and a long queue of people started going to the gallows,” said Ghorra. “That’s what pushed us to start our national campaign.”

The campaign won two significant achievements: “The first, the abolition of that law in 2001. We are the only Arab country that managed to abolish a law (on this issue). In 2004 the prime minister refused to sign the execution papers of one convict. He called it the refusal of conscience. Since then Lebanon has been following an oral moratorium.

But this, she warns, “is very fragile because it’s oral, not written, the draft alternative laws have not been passed yet by parliament, and Lebanon has not signed the U.N. moratorium.”

Campaigners are now looking out for changes that the Arab Spring might bring. Not everyone is confident, though, given the rising force of Islamist groups and parties in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Much will depend on the policies the Islamist parties adopt, whether these are radical or moderate.

Campaigners in Tunisia expect the Islamist groups there to be moderate. “Tunisia has adopted a position of stopping use of the death penalty since 1991,” Dr Amor Boubakri, associate professor in public law at the University of Sousse in Tunisia, told IPS. “But several laws have been adopted which provide for the death penalty, the last dated 2005. Since the revolution, there is a big hope we can abolish the death penalty.”

Campaigners are taking heart, he says, from decisions made by the interim government a few weeks after the revolution. “The most important is the adoption of the Rome Statute, so Tunisia has become a member of the International Criminal Court. And other human rights tools have been adopted.”

As Tunisia heads for elections for a constituent assembly next month, campaigners are seeking to raise a national debate on capital punishment. “There is a possibility that the next assembly could adopt abolition of the death penalty,” says Boubakri.

The rise in the power of Islamist parties is not necessarily a hurdle, he says. “These parties have a big chance to get the majority in the next assembly but Islamism in Tunisia is basically a moderate movement. We have some radical Islamist movements, but the most important one is a moderate one and is likely to adopt the Turkish way of Islam.

“As a consequence the attitude of the Islamist party to human rights issues is generally positive. We don’t know their attitude towards the death penalty, but their stand on human rights issues is positive.”

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