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State-Sponsored Killings Rise to Record Highs

A Liberian execution squad fires a volley of shots, killing cabinet ministers of Liberia. April 1980. Credit: Website Rare Historical Photos

UNITED NATIONS, May 16 2023 (IPS) - When the Taliban captured power back in 1996, one of its first political acts was to hang the ousted Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah in Ariana Square Kabul.

Fast forward to 15 August 2021, when the Taliban, in its second coming, assumed power ousting the US-supported government of Ashraf Ghani, a former official of the World Bank, armed with a doctorate in anthropology from one of the most prestigious Ivy League educational institutions: Columbia University.

In a Facebook posting, Ghani said he fled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seeking safe haven because he “was going to be hanged” by the Taliban. If that did happen, the Taliban would have earned the dubious distinction of being the only government in the world to hang two presidents.

But mercifully, it did not. Ghani, however, denied that he had bolted from the presidential palace lugging several suitcases with millions of dollars pilfered from the country’s treasury.

On April 12, 1980, Samuel Doe led a military coup, killing President William R. Tolbert, Jr., in the Executive Mansion in Liberia, a West African country founded by then-emancipated African-American slaves, with its capital named after the fifth US President James Monroe.

The entire Cabinet, was publicly paraded in the nude, lined up on a beach in the capital of Monrovia – and shot to death. According to an April 1980 BBC report, “13 leading officials of the ousted government in Liberia were publicly executed on the orders of the new military regime.”

The dead men included several former cabinet ministers and the elder brother of William Tolbert, the assassinated president of the west African state. They were tied to stakes on a beach next to the army barracks in the capital, Monrovia, and shot, said BBC.

“Journalists who had been taken to the barracks to watch the executions said they were cruel and messy.”

But in some countries state-sponsored killings are on the rise.

In a new study released May 16, the human rights organization Amnesty International (AI) said 2022 recorded the highest number of judicial executions globally, since 2017.

The list includes 81 people executed in a single day in Saudi Arabia— and 20 other countries known to have carried out executions.

AI accused the Middle East and North Africa of carrying out “killing sprees.”. But, still, there were six countries that abolished the death penalty fully or partially

A total of 883 people were known to have been executed across 20 countries, marking a rise of 53% over 2021.

This spike in executions, which does not include the thousands believed to have been carried out in China last year, was led by countries in the Middle East and North Africa, where recorded figures rose from 520 in 2021 to 825 in 2022.

Other countries enforcing capital punishment include Iran, Myanmar, China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, North Korea, Vietnam, the US and Singapore.

Dr. Simon Adams, President and CEO of the Center for Victims of Torture, the largest international organization that treats survivors and advocates for an end to torture worldwide, told IPS: ““When you strip away the judicial pomp and ceremony, the death penalty is nothing more than cold, calculated, state-sponsored murder”.

He said it violates the universal human right to life and clearly constitutes cruel, degrading and unusual punishment.

“While a record number of states around the world now view capital punishment as an antiquated and regressive practice, it’s true that executions are growing in a number of repressive states”.

In the aftermath of the “women, life, freedom” mass demonstrations, he pointed out, Iran’s theocratic rulers have used the hangman’s noose as a tool of social control – executing protesters, political dissidents and troublesome minorities.

Similarly, Myanmar’s Generals, who have failed to suppress widespread opposition to military rule, have also reintroduced hanging. “But if history teaches us anything, it is that states can execute political prisoners, but they can’t kill their ideas”.

“It is morally reprehensible that two states that sit on the UN Security Council, China and the United States, are amongst the world’s most prolific executioners of their own people. It’s time for the US and China to join the 125 UN member states who have publicly called for a moratorium on the death penalty,” Dr Adams declared.

In some countries the brutal way that the death penalty is imposed may not just constitute cruel, degrading and unusual punishment, but may also constitute torture.

The fact that public hanging, beheading, electrocution, stoning and other barbaric practices are still happening in the twenty-first century should shame all of humanity, he pointed out.

Asked about a role for the United Nations, Dr Adams said: “The UN should definitely take a more active role in advancing the global abolition of capital punishment.”

Agnès Callamard, Amnesty International’s Secretary-General, said countries in the Middle East and North Africa region violated international law as they ramped up executions in 2022, revealing a callous disregard for human life.

“The number of individuals deprived of their lives rose dramatically across the region; Saudi Arabia executed a staggering 81 people in a single day. Most recently, in a desperate attempt to end the popular uprising, Iran executed people simply for exercising their right to protest.”

Disturbingly, 90% of the world’s known executions outside China were carried out by just three countries in the region.

Recorded executions in Iran soared from 314 in 2021 to 576 in 2022; figures tripled in Saudi Arabia, from 65 in 2021 to 196 in 2022 — the highest recorded by Amnesty in 30 years — while Egypt executed 24 individuals.

According to AI, the use of the death penalty remained shrouded in secrecy in several countries, including China, North Korea, and Viet Nam — countries that are known to use the death penalty extensively — meaning that the true global figure is far higher.

While the precise number of those killed in China is unknown, it is clear that the country remained the world’s most prolific executioner, ahead of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the USA.

Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who is critical of capital punishment, “strongly condemned” executions carried out last July by the Myanmar military against four political activists in Myanmar — Phyo Zeya Thaw, Kyaw Min Yu (Ko Jimmy), Hla Myo Aung and Aung Thura Zaw — and offered his condolences to their families.

The Secretary-General opposes the imposition of death penalty in all circumstances, his spokesman said. These executions, the first to be conducted since 1988 in Myanmar, mark a further deterioration of the already dire human rights environment in Myanmar.

In the report, the Secretary-General confirms the trend towards the universal abolition of the death penalty and highlights initiatives limiting its use and implementing the safeguards guaranteeing protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty.

Meanwhile, AI said there was a glimmer of hope as six countries abolished the death penalty either fully or partially.

Kazakhstan, Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic abolished the death penalty for all crimes, while Equatorial Guinea and Zambia abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only.

As of December 2022, 112 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes and nine countries had abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes only.

The positive momentum continued as Liberia and Ghana took legislative steps toward abolishing the death penalty, while the authorities of Sri Lanka and the Maldives said they would not resort to implementing death sentences. Bills to abolish the mandatory death penalty were also tabled in the Malaysian Parliament.

“As many countries continue to consign the death penalty to the dustbin of history, it’s time for others to follow suit. The brutal actions of countries such as Iran, Saudi Arabia as well as China, North Korea and Viet Nam are now firmly in the minority. These countries should urgently catch up with the times, protect human rights, and execute justice rather than people,” said Callamard.

“With 125 UN member states — more than ever before — calling for a moratorium on executions, AI said it has never felt more hopeful that this abhorrent punishment can and will be relegated to the annals of history.

“But 2022’s tragic figures remind us that we can’t rest on our laurels. We will continue to campaign until the death penalty is abolished across the globe.”

IPS UN Bureau Report


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