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Crime & Justice

Death Penalty Campaigners Worry About the Steps Back

GENEVA, Oct 11 2012 (IPS) - Ten years of campaigning by the World Coalition against the Death Penalty have brought fruit: the number of countries that have abolished capital punishment in law or practice has gone up to 140. But some countries have resumed executions this year.

“Today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. They are either completely abolitionist or have not carried out any execution for at least ten years as an official policy, not a random phenomenon. This makes up 70 percent of the world states,” Jan Erik Wetzel, Amnesty International advocate for the death penalty, told IPS in an interview.

“In 2003, only 80 countries were completely abolitionist. Ten years later, their number has risen to 97. We have abolition or a dramatic decrease of the executions in all regions and legal systems of the world. Asia and the Arab region are more difficult than others, but the death penalty is surmountable everywhere.”

According to Amnesty International, 14 countries still retain the death penalty in Asia. But 17, including Cambodia, Nepal, Bhutan, the Philippines and East Timor, have abolished it for all crimes. China, that executes most people by far in the world, has abolished the death penalty for 13 mostly economic crimes.

In the Middle East and North Africa, four out of 19 countries – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – accounted for 99 percent of all executions last year, with a dramatic increase in Iraq (mainly for “terrorist” crimes) and Saudi Arabia (particularly for drug offenders). An increase was noted also in the Hamas controlled part of the Gaza strip. But Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Albania, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Djibouti have either abolished or reduced executions dramatically. In Lebanon and Jordan the number of the death sentences has gone down, even though to a lesser extent.

“In Tunisia and Egypt, after the Arab spring, we have made sure that the death penalty becomes a part of the discussion,” Wetzel said. “In Tunisia, we suggested to abolish it and discussions are still ongoing, but the signs are not good. For these countries, we had high hopes after the uprisings, but they have not materialised.”

However, he finds it encouraging that Tunisia has not executed for more than a decade, and that President Moncef Marzouki commuted 122 death sentences in January this year. And that in Egypt former president Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to life imprisonment. “The death penalty has become part of the political conversation, when nobody talked about it before. There are very committed activists in both countries. Since the uprisings, they do a lot of grassroots work that may not bring success immediately.”

“In Egypt, for the first time people can shape the agenda,” Amr Issam of the Mission of Egypt to the UN told IPS. It would be difficult for the new government to go against the majority of the population, he said. “The key challenge is to have a constructive dialogue to encourage states to revisit the list of crimes that are punishable by death. And to bring in more safeguards and a more independent judicial process.”

States that retain the death penalty must limit it to the most serious crimes, which has been interpreted to mean the crime of murder, Kyung-Wha Kang, deputy UN high commissioner for human rights, reminded a conference to celebrate ten years of a campaign against the death penalty at the United Nations office in Geneva this week. Use of the death penalty for drug smuggling should be abolished, he said.

“In the early 1990s, we started cooperation between civil society and the Italian government for a moratorium,” said Emma Bonino, vice-president of the Italian Senate and a pioneer in the fight against capital punishment. “Many human rights groups were against the moratorium, they wanted to go for abolition. It has been a tough discussion. But today people recognise that having gone for a moratorium was a success. All the countries that have arrived to abolition have first gone through it.”

According to Amnesty International, each year, in addition to an unknown number of people executed in China, many countries including Iran, the U.S., Yemen and North Korea each carry out scores of executions. And there are backlashes: this year, Botswana, the Gambia and Japan resumed executions. Gambia had not carried out executions for the past 30 years.

A collateral and completely neglected effect of capital punishment is its impact on the orphans left behind. “There is very little research on this issue,” Helen Kearney, from the Quakers UN Office in Geneva, told IPS. “But evidence highlights serious emotional implications for these children, such as post-traumatic stress diseases and a huge social stigma.”

She deplores the lack of data collection, even in the United States, where no special programme exists to take care of the children. In some countries, especially the ones where the death penalty is routinely applied in cases of domestic violence and the children may lose both parents, they end up on the street. “We want a reframing of this question. It is a child rights and a public health issue, it is intergenerational and it reaches out to the wider community. States must take their responsibility.”

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