THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTS OF 2008 (and the first six months of 2009)
The Worldwide Situation to Date
The worldwide trend towards abolition, underway for at least a decade, was again confirmed in 2008 and the first six months of 2009.
There are currently 151 countries and territories that to different extents have decided to renounce the death penalty. Of these: 96 are totally abolitionist; 8 are abolitionist for ordinary crimes; 5 have a moratorium on executions in place and 42 are de facto abolitionist (i.e. countries that have not carried out any executions for at least 10 years or countries which have binding obligations not to use the death penalty).
Countries retaining the death penalty worldwide are down to 46, compared to the 49 retentionists in 2007, 51 in 2006 and 54 in 2005.
In 2008, the number of countries resorting to the death penalty was 26, as in 2007 and compared with 28 in 2006.
The gradual abandonment of the death penalty is also evident in the declining use of capital punishment by the countries that still maintain death as the maximum penalty for criminal acts. At least 5,727 executions were carried out in 2008 down from a minimum of 5,851 in 2007.
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, there were no executions in 3 countries where executions were carried out in 2007: Ethiopia (1), Equatorial Guinea (3) and Kuwait (at least 1). On the other hand, 3 countries resumed executions: The United Arab Emirates (at least 1) and Bahrain (1) which hadn’t carried out an execution since 2007; Saint Kitts and Nevis (1) after ten years of suspension.
Once again, Asia tops the standings as the region where the vast majority of executions are carried out. Taking the estimated number of executions in China to be at least 5,000 (more or less equal to the number in 2007 but diminished in respect to preceding years), the total for 2008 corresponds to a minimum of 5,666 executions (98.9%), down from a minimum of 5,782 in 2007.
America would be practically death-penalty free were it not for the United States and Saint Kitts and Nevis, the only two countries on the continent to execute anyone in 2008, respectively 37 and 1 condemned put to death.
In Africa, in 2008, the death penalty was carried out in only 5 countries – Botswana (at least 1), Egypt (at least 2), Libya (at least 8), Somalia (at least 3), and Sudan (at least 5) – where there were at least 19 executions as compared to 26 in 2007 and 87 in 2006 on the entire continent. It should be noted that Ethiopia and Equatorial Guinea, which executed one and three condemned respectively in 2007, carried out no executions in 2008.
In November 2008, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) called for a moratorium on executions and the ratification of the UN Protocol for the abolition of the death penalty.
In Europe, the only blemish on an otherwise completely death penalty-free zone continues to be Belarus, where, at least 4 executions were held in 2008. There was at least 1 in 2007 and, according to OSCE records, there were at least 3 executions in 2006 and 4 in 2005.
China, Iran and Saudi Arabia: Top Executioners of 2008
Of the 46 countries worldwide that retain the death penalty, 36 are dictatorial, authoritarian or illiberal States. Twenty of these countries were responsible for approximately 5,662 executions, about 98.9% of the world total in 2008.
China alone carried out at least 5,000, or 87.3%, of the world total of executions; Iran put at least 346 people to death and Saudi Arabia 102; North Korea, at least 63; Pakistan, at least 36; Iraq, at least 34; Vietnam, at least 19; Afghanistan, at least 17; Yemen, at least 13; Libya, at least 8; Sudan, at least 5; Bangladesh, 5; Belarus, 4; Somalia, at least 3; Egypt, at least 2; Bahrain, 1; The United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Singapore and Syria, at least 1.
Many of these countries do not issue official statistics on the practice of the death penalty; therefore the number of executions may in fact be much higher.
This is the prevalent situation worldwide concerning the practice of the death penalty. It points to the fact that the fight against the death penalty entails, beyond the stopping of executions, a battle for democracy, for the respect of the rule of law and for political rights and civil liberties.
The terrible podium of the world’s top executioners is again taken by three authoritarian States in 2008: China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
China: Officially the World’s Record-holder for Executions (Despite a Significant Reduction)
Hands Off Cain estimates that there were at least 5,000 executions in China in 2008, more or less unchanged from 2007, but diminished in respect to previous years.
The Dui Hua Foundation, a San Francisco-based group that works on behalf of political prisoners and monitors Chinese prisons, estimated that “the number of executions in 2008 exceeded 5,000 and may have been as high as 7,000.” According to the Foundation, run by business executive-turned-human-rights advocate John Kamm – who still maintains good relations with government officials – about 6,000 people were executed in 2007, a 25 to 30 percent drop from 2006, in which estimates reported at least 7,500 executions – the result, according to Kamm, of the 2008 Olympic Games being held in Beijing.
In any event, statistics and percentages are of little value as all aspects of capital punishment remain a State secret including the actual number of death sentences and executions in 2008 and in years prior.
On March 10, 2009, in his report to the annual session of the National People’s Congress, the chief justice of the Supreme People’s Court, Wang Shengjun, in keeping with the government’s customary secrecy, gave no figures for the number of death sentences or executions. Wang only noted that, in 2008, the courts sentenced a total of 159,020 people to death, life imprisonment, or more than five years in prison, accounting for 15.79 percent of all people having been sentenced. Wang said the Supreme People’s Court dealt with 10,553 cases of various types and ruled on 7,725 cases, but again he did not say how many were related to death sentences. One indicative fact concerning the practice of the death penalty in China did surface from statements by the Supreme People’s Court, however, that declared on February 26, 2009, that 1,279 people were sentenced to death or prison terms of five years to life in 2008 in cases involving organized crime.
Although the death penalty remains a State secret in China, some news in recent years, including declarations from official sources, suggest that the use of the death penalty may have diminished as much as 30% compared to preceding years.
A major turnabout came after the introduction of a legal reform on January 1, 2007, which requires that every capital sentence handed down in China by an inferior court be reviewed by the Supreme Court that overturned 15 percent of all death sentences reviewed in 2007 and the first half of 2008.
Despite these first signs of an at least superficial approach to guaranteeing civil liberties, both violent and non-violent criminals continue to be cast indiscriminately into the meat-grinder of Chinese justice. They are prosecuted and dispatched with a lack of transparency, according to Chinese lawyers who complain of blocked access to their clients and say many confessions are still coerced. There are also double standards: public officials accused of embezzling millions receive suspended death sentences that spare their lives, while ordinary citizens convicted of stealing far less die by lethal injection or a single gunshot to the head, according to lawyers and court records.
The peak times for executions are around the holidays. Generally, the Chinese government “celebrates” national holidays executing massive numbers of condemned and, traditionally, a wave of executions has preceded the “celebration” of the Chinese National Day and the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, as well as the opening of sessions of the National People’s Congress.
Iran: Still at Second Place on the Podium of Inhumanity
In 2008, once again, Iran has come in second in the bid for the highest number of executions and, along with China and Saudi Arabia, finds itself atop the loathsome awards podium of the champion executioner-States of the world.
There were an estimated 346 executions in Iran in 2008. In 2007, at least 355 people were put to death, a one-third increase as compared with 2006 when executions numbered at least 215.
There are no signs of change in the situation considering that in 2009, as of May 31, there have already been at least 200 executions.
The numbers could be higher as the Iranian authorities do not provide official statistics. The cases that are counted arrive from scattered reports by Iranian journalists that evidently don’t report all executions throughout the nation.
According to lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, who is acting for many of the country’s death row prisoners and, in particular, campaigning to save 25 prisoners sentenced to death for crimes committed as minors, the true number of executions far exceeds estimates given by international human rights groups. “I have calculated there were at least 400 executions in 2008, but it could be 500 to 600,” said Mostafaei, who was arrested and taken away by plainclothes officers to an undisclosed location on June 26, 2009. The arrest was most likely related to his human rights activities connected with the mass demonstrations after the fraudulent elections of June 12.
In 2008, at least 13 people under the age of 18 at the time of their crime were executed in Iran, the only country on record to have done so in 2008, and in open violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which it is a co-signatory. Numerous other child offenders were sentenced to death. At least 8 minors were put to death in 2007. The execution of minors continued into 2009 and as of June 30, there have already been 4 such executions.
Hanging is the preferred method with which to apply Sharia law in Iran, but stoning was used in at least two cases in 2008 and one in 2009, while shooting was used in at least one case. There was also a case in which the condemned were sentenced to be thrown off a cliff in a sack.
As further testimony to the fervor and fury of the Iranian Regime, mass executions continued in 2008. Iran welcomed 2008 with 23 hangings within the first ten days of the New Year. On January 2, 2008, 13 people were hanged, including a mother of two young children found guilty of murdering her husband. On February 20, 2008, Iran hanged 10 people convicted of armed robbery and murder. On July 27, 2008, Iran hanged 29 people in Tehran’s Evin prison, in the largest mass execution in the Islamic republic in years.
In 2009, there was no sign of progress. Mass executions continued. Between January 20 and January 21, 2009, 19 people were hanged in only two days. In the month of May, 52 people were hanged, 21 of whom between May 2 and May 8, 2009. On July 4, 2009, Iran hanged 20 drug traffickers in a prison in the city of Karaj west of Tehran.
Repression of members of religious and spiritual movements and members of Iran’s ethnic minorities, including Iranian Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs, continued in 2008 and the first months of 2009, as well the use of the death penalty for purely political motives and non violent crimes.
However, the death penalty is not the only punishment dictated by the Iranian implementation of Sharia or Islamic law. There is also torture, amputation, flogging and other cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments. These are not isolated incidents and they occur in flagrant violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that Iran signed and which expressly prohibits such practices.
Every year, thousands of youths are whipped in Iran for consuming alcohol or attending parties with the opposite sex or for outrages against public decency. But the regime particularly outdoes itself in its violation of women’s rights. Harsh measures against improper veiled women in streets and public places have been augmented with the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Saudi Arabia has among the highest number of executions in the world, in both absolute terms and per capita.
There were at least 102 executions in 2008, a drastic reduction in respect to 2007, when there were 166 executions, more than four times the 39 executions held in 2006. The record number was established in 1995 with 191 executions.
In 2009, as of June 30, there were at least 45 executions, including those of three minors.
In Saudi Arabia the executions are carried out by beheading in a public place near the largest mosque.
Almost two-thirds of those executed are foreign nationals, the vast majority being from the poorer countries of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Often, the accused is denied the assistance of a lawyer before the trial and in the courtroom. The condemned are often not aware that have been sentenced to death. In many cases, they have not even realized that their trial has ended, and only begin to realize the gravity of their situation, when a handful of police erupt into their cells, call the condemned by name and drag them out to their execution.
In 2008, no executions of juvenile offenders were reported, while in 2009 there were three such executions.
Of the 102 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2008, at least 31 were carried out for drug-related crimes.
Democracy and the Death Penalty
Of the 46 retentionists, only 10 countries are considered liberal democracies. This definition as used here takes into account the country’s political system and its respect towards human rights, civil and political liberties, free market practices and the rule of law.
There were 6 liberal democracies that carried out executions in 2008, and they accounted for 65 executions between them, about 1.1% of the world tally. These were: United States (37), Japan (15), Indonesia (at least 10), Botswana (at least 1) and Saint Kitts and Nevis (1). Executions may have been carried out in Mongolia, though none were reported officially.
United States: Application and Support of the Death Penalty Continues a Downward Trend
Two major events characterized the state of the death penalty in the United States in 2008 and the first six months of 2009: the Supreme Court decision upholding the protocol regarding lethal injections and the abolition of the death penalty in New Mexico.
On April 16, 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the cocktail of lethal substances used for executions did not constitute a “cruel and unusual” punishment and, therefore, was not unconstitutional. The ruling brought an end to the de facto moratorium which halted executions in the United States starting on 25 September 2007, when the Court decided to hear Baze vs. Rees, a case tried originally in Kentucky.
As a result of the continued moratorium in the first months of 2008 (Georgia resumed executions on May 6), there were “only” 37 executions in 2008, the lowest number of executions in that country (the highest number of executions was in 1999 with a total of 98).
Overall, U.S. trends were once again confirmed: 95% of all executions are carried out in the regions of the South. Executions took place in 9 States. As usual, Texas headed up the list of “executioners.” In fact, with its 18 executions, 8 less than the previous year, Texas alone was responsible for 48% of all the executions in the United States. Along with Texas, 4 executions were carried out in Virginia, 3 in Georgia and South Carolina, 2 in Florida, Mississippi, Ohio and Oklahoma, and 1 in Kentucky. The only State outside the U.S. South responsible for an execution was the State of Ohio.
While the record low number of executions may only be considered a “fortuitous” result of the de facto moratorium, an event which according to experts will probably not be repeated any time in the near future, the record low number of death sentences remains promising. There were “only” 111 death sentences handed down in 2008, the lowest number since the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1976.
The total number of inmates on death row as of December 31, 2008 had dropped to 3,297. The highest number of inmates on death row was reached in 2000 at 3,593 inmates. Since then the number has diminished regularly.
The other key event in the United States was, on March 18, 2009, the abolition of the death penalty in New Mexico, only the second U.S. State to do so in more than forty years, after New Jersey on December 13, 2007. Connecticut came close to doing so with favourable votes in the State House and Senate, only to have the legislation vetoed by Governor M. Jodi Rell on June 5, 2009.
However, de jure or de facto moratoriums which, in recent years, were established or for various motives came into effect are still in place in Illinois, New York, Maryland, North Carolina, California and Nebraska..
In 2008, 4 people on death row were released from prison, bringing the total number of “exonerated” to 129 from 1973 to December 31, 2008. Besides complete exonerations, 4 condemned received commutations to life imprisonment thanks to pardons from State Governors or various Boards of Pardons. Another four exonerations were reported in the first six months of 2009.
Besides the questions of judicial error, which have been debated lively in recent years, the problems related to the “cost of the death penalty” came under focus in 2008. If prosecutors wish to try cases involving the death sentence they must provide more evidence, more lab results, more testimony, and those who risk death have a right to increased free legal assistance, lab analysis to contrast that of the Prosecution, and to hire expert witnesses and to present a series of appeals and recourses that are not available to those who risk imprisonment. From all this, an alternative: giving up on capital punishment, and using the money saved to solve cases where criminals have yet to be identified.
Opinion polls have shown a decrease of those in favour of the death penalty demonstrated only by percentages recorded 30 years ago. The last national Gallup poll in October 2008 shows that those in favour of the death penalty fell 5 points, from 69% to 64%, in respect to the prior year. The percentage of those who declared themselves explicitly “against” increased from 27% to 30%. The “third type,” those who choose to condemn a killer to life imprisonment without parole was not included in the survey. Gallup has not asked this question since 2006, when those who favoured life imprisonment (48%) outweighed those in favour of the death penalty (47%).
Japan: New Record for Executions
A total of 15 inmates have been executed in Japan in 2008, the most in a single year since 1999 when the government started announcing the number of executions, and the highest total since 1975 when Japanese authorities hanged 17 people. In 2007, 9 people were executed in Japan, compared to 4 in 2006. This represents an unprecedented escalation, considering that from 1998 to 2005 there were only 16 executions, an average of two a year.
Four people were put to death in the first six months of 2009.
The government maintained a maximum reserve regarding executions until December of 2007, when Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama broke with the tradition of not publicizing them and announced the names and crimes of the three convicts being executed. The tradition of not carrying out executions while the Diet is in session in an attempt to avoid unnecessary controversies was also broken. Each of the four series of executions, decided upon by the first Fukuda governments and carried out between December 2007 and June 2008, were done while the legislature was in session.
Upon entering office in August of 2007, the new Minister of Justice Kunio Hatoyama promised to “empty out death row.” During his stay in office, which lasted one year, Hatoyama ordered 13 executions, a record number which earned him the nickname of the ‘grim reaper’ from the media. His successors have shown no signs of change: under Minister of Justice Okiharu Yasuoka, there were 5 executions; 4 under his successor Eisuke Mori, all on the same day, January 29, 2009.
Following the latest executions, Japan has 95 inmates on death row, under the 100 allotted for as the tolerable capacity for death row by the Japanese government.
Executions were relatively rare in Indonesia until 2004, when under the scope of a national campaign against drug abuse and drug dealing launched by then-President Megawati Sukarnoputri in view of October elections, three foreigners were shot for trafficking heroin.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has overseen a steep increase in the country’s use of the death penalty. Nineteen people have been executed and 57 sentenced to death since Yudhoyono took over in 2004.
Ten people were executed in 2008, the highest number in recent years. At least one person was put to death in Indonesia in 2007, while three men were executed in 2006.
The death penalty has been on the books in Botswana since its independence from Great Britain in 1966, but the number of executions, often carried out in secret, has always been low, one or, at most, two a year. For the first time in many years, there were no executions in 2004 and 2005. Between 2006 and 2008 there were three executions, one a year.
Europe: Death Penalty Free but for Belarus and Russia
Europe would be a death penalty free continent if not for Belarus, a country that has continued to execute its citizens regularly, unlike many of the former Soviet-bloc States.
By unofficial estimates, up to 400 people were executed in Belarus since 1991. According to official data, more than 160 death penalties have been carried from 1997 to 2008. Only one condemned person is known to have been pardoned by Alexander Lukashenko’s decree.
Four people were executed in 2008 and 1 in 2007.
The situation in Russia is different for its commitment to abolish the death penalty as member of the Council of Europe, and for a 1996 moratorium on executions that is still in effect.
As far as the rest of Europe is concerned, with the exception of Latvia which retains the death penalty for crimes during wartime, all other European countries have abolished the death penalty in all circumstances.
Abolition, De Facto Abolition and Moratoriums
The worldwide trend towards the abolition of the death penalty by law and de facto of the last ten years was reaffirmed in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009. After 2007, when 9 countries became total or de facto abolitionist, another 5 followed suit in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009.
Uzbekistan went from being a retentionist country to an abolitionist country on January 1, 2008.
In 2008, Sierra Leone has gone more than ten years without practicing the death penalty, establishing itself as de facto abolitionist country.
On August 6, 2008, with the abolition of its Military Code of Justice, Argentina, already abolitionist for ordinary crimes, erased the final traces of the death penalty from the country’s laws.
In April 2009, Burundi adopted a new penal code abolishing the death penalty.
In June 2009, Togo’s parliament voted unanimously to abolish the death penalty.
In the United States, on March 18, 2009, New Mexico abolished the death penalty, becoming only the second U.S. State to do so in more than forty years, after New Jersey on December 13, 2007.
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, significant political and legislative steps towards abolition or at least positive signs such as collective commutations of capital punishment have been reported in numerous countries.
Proposals of abolition or reductions of the number of capital crimes were advanced in Lebanon, Algeria, Benin, Jordan and Democratic Republic of Congo.
In June 2009, the Kazakh Parliament amended the current criminal legislation, imposing death penalty only for terrorist crimes causing people’s death and for heavy and especially grave crimes committed in time of war.
In June 2009, Vietnam voted in favour of dropping the death penalty on eight crimes.
A significant number of amnesties and commutations were decided upon in Trinidad and Tobago, Nigeria and Zambia.
In April of 2008, Cuba announced the commutation of all condemnations to death.
In May 2008, Cameroon President Paul Biya commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment for people sentenced to death, and ordained commutation to 20 years imprisonment for people whose death sentence had already been commuted to life imprisonment.
On January 7, 2009, his last day in office as President of Ghana, John Kufuor pardoned more than 500 prisoners.
In January 2009, Uganda’s Supreme Court ruled that death sentences be commuted to life imprisonment after three years in jail.
Reintroduction of the Death Penalty and Resumption of Executions
Regarding steps backwards, the most important news is that of the resumption of executions in Saint Kitts and Nevis in December of 2008, after ten years of de facto moratorium.
In February of 2008, the Parliament of Guatemala approved a law that called for the end of a moratorium in place since 2002, but it was vetoed by President Alvaro Colom.
In July 2008, Liberia established the death penalty for some violent crimes, in violation of the country’s international obligations.
In December 2008, Jamaica’s senate voted to retain the death penalty, a punishment that has not been carried out in the country for 20 years.
The brief “de facto” moratorium which began on September 25, 2007, when the Supreme Court of the United States decided to rule on the constitutionality of execution by lethal injection, ended on April 16, 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the practice of lethal injection. As a result of the remaining months of moratorium (Georgia resumed executions on May 6), there were “only” 37 executions in 2008, the lowest number in the last 14 years.
Sharia Law and the Death Penalty
In 2008, at least 585 executions, down from 754 in 2007, were carried out in 16 Muslim-majority countries, many of which were ordered by religious tribunals applying a strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Nineteen retentionist countries look explicitly to Sharia law as the foundation of their judicial system.
However, the problem is not the Koran itself as illustrated by the fact that not all countries that observe its teachings predominantly practice the death penalty, or make the text the basis of their penal or civil codes, or their fundamental law. It lies rather in the literal translation of a centuries-old text into penal norms, punishments and rules applied to our times, a transposition performed by fundamentalist, dictatorial or authoritarian regimes and used by them to impede any democratic progress.
Of the 48 Muslim-majority States worldwide, 23 can be considered abolitionist in various forms, while 25 retain the death penalty, of which 16 applied capital punishment in 2008.
Hanging, beheading and firing squad are the methods which were used to enforce the Sharia in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, but Iran there were also cases of stoning (at least two cases in 2008 and one in 2009).
Of all Islamic punishments, stoning is the most terrible. The condemned person is wrapped head to foot in white shrouds and buried in a pit. A woman is buried up to her armpits, while a man is buried up to his waist. A truckload of rocks is brought to the site and court-appointed officials, or in some cases ordinary citizens approved by the authorities, carry out the stoning. The stones used must be neither too large, or they may cause instant death, nor too small to be fatal.
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, sentences of death by stoning were issued in Nigeria and Iran. In the latter, two men were stoned to death on December 25, 2008, and another on March 5, 2009, all after being convicted of adultery.
On October 27, 2008, a 13 years old woman was stoned to death in Somalia, after an Islamic court found her guilty of adultery.
Hanging – but not only...
A common alternative to death by stoning in sentences based on Sharia law is hanging, which is often carried out in public and combined with supplementary punishments such as flogging and the amputation of limbs before the actual execution.
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, hangings carried out on the basis of Sharia law were practiced in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Malaysia, Pakistan and Sudan.
In Iran, hanging is often carried out by crane or low platforms to draw out the pain of death. The noose is made from heavy rope or steel wire and is placed around the neck in such a fashion as to crush the larynx causing extreme pain and prolonging the death of the condemned.
Beheading as a means of carrying out executions provided by Sharia law is exclusive to Saudi Arabia, the Islamic country that most strictly interprets Islamic law.
Typically, executions are held in the city where the crime was committed in a public place near the largest mosque. The condemned is brought to the site with their hands tied and forced to kneel before the executioner, who draws a long sword to cries of “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great.”) from the crowd.
Sometimes, beheading is followed by the public display of the bodies of the executed. Such was the case on May 29, 2009, when Ahmad Adhib bin Askar al-Shamalani al-Anzi was beheaded by sword for double murder and his body was put on a cross in the Saudi capital Riyadh.
Not considered an Islamic punishment, the firing squad has been used in 2008 and 2009 in carrying out Sharia-based executions in Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Yemen, Libya and Somalia.
According to Islamic law, the relatives of the victim of a crime have three options: to allow the execution to take place, to spare the murderer’s life to receive blessings from God, or to grant clemency in exchange for ‘diya’, or blood money.
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, cases involving “blood money” ended in pardon or death in Iran, Kuwait, Libya, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen.
In Saudi Arabia, numerous cases involving “blood money” were resolved positively thanks to the Reconciliation Committee, a nation-wide organization that secures pardons for death row prisoners and helps settle lengthy inter-family and tribal disputes through mediation.
Iranian law provides that the “blood money” (diya) for a woman is half that of a man. Furthermore, if a man kills a woman, a man cannot be executed, even if condemned to death, without the family of the woman first paying to the family of the murderer half the price of his blood money.
Blasphemy and apostasy
In some Islamic countries, the death penalty has been expanded on the basis of Sharia law to cases of blasphemy. That is, the death penalty can be imposed in cases of those who offend the prophet Mohamed, other prophets or the Holy Scriptures.
Non-Muslims cannot make attempts at converting Muslims to their religion and some Governments officially prohibit the performance of religious rites in public by non-Muslims. Conversion from Islam or renouncing Islam is considered apostasy and is technically a capital crime.
In 2008 and in the first months of 2009, death sentences for blasphemy and apostasy were handed down in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.
In September 2008, Iran’s parliament voted by an overwhelming majority in favour of a draft law that would mandate the death penalty for apostates.
The Death Penalty for Minors
The execution of people for crimes committed before 18 years of age is a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
In 2008, at least 13 juvenile offenders were put to death in Iran, the only country reported as having carried out the death penalty for those condemned of crimes committed before their eighteenth birthday. Death sentences were handed down, but not carried out, in cases where the defendant was a minor at the time of the crime in Sudan and United Arab Emirates.
In 2007, at least 13 juvenile offenders were put to death worldwide: in Iran (at least 8), Saudi Arabia (3), Pakistan (1) and Yemen (1). In 2006, there were at least 8 minors put to death (7 in Iran and 1 in Pakistan).
In 2009, as of June 30, at least 7 condemned who were minors at the time of their offences were executed in Iran (4) and Saudi Arabia (3).
The “War on Drugs”
The prohibitionist ideology concerning drugs, dominant worldwide, once again made its contribution to the practice of the death penalty in 2008 and the first six months of 2009.
In the name of the war on drugs and as a result of increasingly strict laws, there were executions carried out in China, Indonesia, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Vietnam. Death sentences were handed down but not carried out in Algeria, Egypt, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan, Qatar, Singapore, Syria and Thailand.
Of the 102 executions in Saudi Arabia in 2008, at least 31 were carried out for drug-related crimes.
In China, in 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, the number of executions for drug-related crimes has decreased in respect to 2007. It is probable that this change is a reflection of the reform passed on January 1, 2007, that passed judicial review of death penalty cases back to China’s Supreme People’s Court, as well as the directive of the same court holding that the death penalty should be imposed on an “extremely reduced number of hardened criminals.”
Regardless, as has long been the case in China, death sentences and executions increased markedly around National holidays and dates of symbolic international importance such as the International Day Against Drugs on June 26.
As of February 18, 2009, in Indonesia, there were 109 inmates on death row, 41 of them foreigners, all convicted of drug trafficking. On June 26, 2008, two Nigerians were executed for drug-trafficking. The executions by firing squad took place overnight, marking the international anti-drugs day, Indonesia’s anti-narcotics agency said.
There are many drug-related executions in Iran, but in the opinion of human rights observers, many of those executed for common crimes, especially drug-related crimes, are actually political executions. In the name of the war on drugs, there were at least 87 executions in 2008. On July 4, 2009, Iran hanged 20 drug traffickers in a prison in the city of Karaj west of Tehran.
Of the 64 death sentences handed down in Vietnam in 2008, almost half were for drug-related crimes. On June 19, 2009, the National Assembly voted in favour of dropping the death penalty on eight crimes: deputies removed using drugs from the list of crimes punishable by death, but maintained capital punishment for drug trafficking.
In April 2009, the Lahore High Court in Pakistan abolished the death sentence for under-trial women and children arrested in narcotics cases.
The “War on Terror”
In 2008 and in the first six months of 2009, anti-terrorism laws were approved in Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Numerous executions related to acts of terrorism were carried out in Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iran and Iraq, while hundreds of death sentences were handed down though not carried out in Algeria, India and Sudan.
In Pakistan, numerous death sentences, also for common crimes, were ordered by special Anti-terrorism courts.
In May 2008, Egypt extended a controversial decades-old state of emergency by two years, in a move slammed by rights-groups as anti-constitutional.
On November 8, 2008, Indonesia executed three Islamic militants for helping plan and carry out the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, many of them foreign tourists.
Of the at least 34 executions in Iraq in 2008, many were of those condemned of crimes related to terrorism, including 28 criminals and militant cult members executed in the city of Basra on April 13, 2008.
In the name of the war on terrorism and “legitimized” by the participation of the Great Coalition born out of the September 11th Attacks in the United States, authoritarian and illiberal countries continue in their violation of human rights within their own countries and, in some cases, have executed and persecuted people that, in reality, are only involved in passive opposition or activities that displease the given regime.
Among those condemned to death or executed for terrorism in Iran, some may very well be dissenters, in particular, members of Iran’s ethnic minorities, including Iranian Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs. Accused of being ‘mohareb’ – enemies of Allah –, those arrested are often subject to rapid and severe trials that often end in a sentence of death.
In particular, China passes off repression against Tibetans and the Uyghurs as part of the war on terrorism. The war against terrorism is particularly heavy in East Turkestan (also known as Xinjiang), the autonomous northwestern region where eight million Turkic-speaking Uyghurs live. In the first six months of 2009, Chinese police arrested 82 suspected terrorists in the nation’s Muslim-populated far northwest. The 82 belonged to five groups that “allegedly plotted sabotage against the Beijing Olympics,” China’s official Xinhua news agency reported, citing the head of the police in Urumqi.
On July 9, 2008, two Uyghurs were sent to be executed after a public announcement of their sentences in Yengi Sheher County, Kashgar. Muhetaer Setiwalidi and Abuduwaili Yiming were sentenced to death for separatist activities, training at a terrorist camp, and illegally manufacturing explosives, Xinhua news agency reported.
On April 9, 2009, China executed another two Uyghurs for a ‘‘terrorist’’ attack on border police on August 4, before the 2008 Olympic Games. Abdurahman Azat, 33, and Kurbanjan Hemit, 28, were put to death out of public view at an undisclosed location, after their execution was announced by a court in Kashgar to 4,000 local officials and residents.
On June 12, 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the constitutional rights of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, the American military base in Cuba which houses the prisoners of the war on terrorism, to have their cases heard in ordinary courts regarding their detention. The Court not only established that the detainees have constitutional rights, but that the system the U.S. administration used classifying the detainees as “enemy combatants” and reviewing their cases was inadequate.
On January 21, 2009, the day after Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, his staff announced a draft order to close the prison in Cuba by the end of 2009. On May 21, 2009, Obama re-stated his intention to close the prison at Guantanamo by the end of January 2010. “The prison at Guantanamo has weakened American national security…and that is why I ordered it closed,” the President said.
Persecution of Adherents to Religious and Spiritual Movements
In 2008 and in the first months of 2009, repression of members of minority religious groups and religious and spiritual movements not recognized by authorities continued in China, North Korea, Iran and Vietnam.
In China, the level of liberty of worship depends on the region. For instance, in Xinjiang, there is a rigid control exercised over Muslims, whereas, in the rest of the country they enjoy relative freedom. The same for Buddhists of Inner Mongolia and Tibet as compared to other regions. In Henan, Protestants undergo heavy prosecution, while in Hebei, it is the Catholics linked to the Vatican.
After Tibet’s largest anti-China protests in almost two decades, started on March 10, 2008, culminating in violent clashes between police and demonstrators in Lhasa on March 14, the Tibetan authorities in exile compiled a confirmed list of the total number of deaths, injuries and arrests or detentions of Tibetans. These figures, based on information and news reports collected from different sources, show that 209 people were killed, 1000 were injured, and more than 5972 detained.
In February of 2009, 76 Tibetans were condemned to varying sentences ranging from three years to life in prison on charges relating to the events in Lhasa in trials that were held behind closed doors. On April 8, 2009, the Lhasa Municipal Intermediate People’s Court sentenced two Tibetans to death and two to death with a two-year reprieve for their role in the unrest in Lhasa in March 2008, Xinhua news agency reported.
The Government continued its repression of so-called “cults,” in particular, of practitioners of the Falun Gong. The Falun Dafa Information Center received reports of over 8,000 practitioners having been detained in 2008. The Falun Dafa Information Center documented the deaths of 104 adherents in 2008 because of severe abuse or neglect in police custody. During the 16 days of the Olympics alone, ten Falun Gong adherents are confirmed to have died. Reports of deaths from torture or other abuses in custody continue to flow from China on a nearly daily basis.
According to its constitution, North Korea guarantees freedom of religion. But in reality, the regime severely restricts religious observance. Those who violate religious restrictions are often accused of crimes such as spying or anti-government activities, and anyone discovered engaging in clandestine religious practice faces official discrimination, arrest, imprisonment, and possibly execution.
Still, more than 30,000 North Koreans are believed to practice Christianity in hiding, and an estimated 6,000 Christians are jailed in "Prison No. 15" in the north of the country.
On June 16, 2009, Ri Hyon Ok, a Christian woman accused of distributing the Bible, was publicly executed for the “crime”. The 33-year-old mother of three was also accused of spying for South Korea and the United States, and of organizing dissidents. Her children and husband were sent to a prison camp near the city of Hoeryong after she was executed in the northwestern city of Ryongchon – near the border with China.
The situation of ethnic and religious minorities in Iran, in particular to the plight of the Baha’i, who are excluded from public life, discriminated against and harassed, was getting worse in 2008 and 2009. Baha’is say hundreds of their followers have been jailed and executed since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution.
On January 3, 2009, a follower of the Baha’i faith was hanged after his daughter complained he had raped her, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported. The man, identified as Houshang Khodadad, was imprisoned and executed in Torbat-e Heydarieh (in eastern Iran).
2008 saw the harshest crackdown on Catholics in Vietnam in decades as Vietnamese authorities sought to curtail mass prayer vigils in Hanoi calling for the return of government-confiscated church properties.
The repression of the Montagnards, the ethnic Christian minority from the Central Highlands, has continued to be particularly harsh. According to the Montagnard Foundation, which has operated for years to obtain religious freedom for the “population of the Highlands,” there are “hundreds” of Christian Montagnards, ethnic Degars, detained in Vietnamese prisons. They can choose to renounce their religion or emigrate to Cambodia.
Death Penalty for Political Motives and Dissent
In 2008 and in the first months of 2009, death sentences and executions for essentially political motives were confirmed in North Korea and Iran.
The penal code of North Korea calls for the obligatory penalty of death for activities of “collusion with the imperialists” in an attempt to “subvert the struggle for national liberation.” People were reportedly condemned to death for such ‘crimes’ as “ideological divergence,” “opposing socialism,” and “counterrevolutionary crimes.”
Political prisoners, peaceful opponents, deserters or repatriated defectors, those who listened to foreign radio broadcasts and those found in possession of so-called “reactionary” material have been shot.
On November 18, 2008, at the founding ceremony of the “Free North Korea Campaign,” which took place at the Press Center in Seoul, the existence of six North Korean political prison camps was explained. North Korea’s political prison camps are divided into “Revolutionary Zone,” where prisoner families and accomplices are imprisoned and can be released after a period of confinement, and “Completely Controlled Zone,” where ‘criminals’ are imprisoned for life.
Among 300,000-some detainees in political prison camps, 90% are held in completely controlled zones. A defector, who was originally a guard of a “completely controlled zone,” testified that the No. 22 Political Prison Camp in Hoiryeong and No. 25 Soosung Reeducation Camp in Chongjin even had the crisis plan of concealing their existence by constructing dams and then destroying them, burying the prisoners alive.
The application of the death penalty for essentially political motives continued in Iran in 2008. There were at least 12 such executions, however Human rights observers believe that many of the people put to death in Iran for ordinary crimes – particularly drug crimes – or for “terrorism,” may well be in fact political opponents, in particular members of Iran’s ethnic minorities, including Iranian Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Baluchis, and Arabs.
The Province of Khuzestan, where ethnic Arabs adhering to Sunni Islam make up the majority of the population, has been theatre to harsh repression, after 2005 bombing attacks in the city of Ahwaz in the Province of Khuzestan, apparently in response to rumors of a government plan to reduce the number of ethnic Ahwazi Arabs in the Province. At least 14 political prisoners were executed in the region in 2007 and the executions have continued in 2008. Contrary to Tehran’s propaganda, most Arab movements in al-Ahwaz are not violent separatists. They primarily want an end to discrimination, cultural rights, social justice and regional self-government – not independence.
The Province of Sistan-Baluchestan has also been the centre of heated repression towards Baluchi dissidents, adherents of Sunni Islam, which has upped the number of executions in 2008 and in 2009. Accused of being ‘mohareb’ (enemies of Allah) or ‘corruptor on earth’ – terms used for those involved in armed struggle against the authorities – “rebels” were hanged after being convicted of cooperating with Abdolmalek Rigi group Jundallah, fighting against the Iranian authorities in the Baluchestan for the rights of Sunni Muslims in Iran.
Also in Iranian Kurdistan, death sentences and executions have been the response to political dissenters accused of “actions against National security” and “contact with subversive organizations.” On July 31, 2008, five Kurds, one of whom was a fifteen-year-old child, were executed in an open field in Tabriz. The Islamic Republic convicted the five East Kurdistanis under the charge of helping the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan [PJAK], affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party [PKK], a militant group that has waged an armed independence campaign in South-eastern Turkey for years.
Death Penalty for Non-Violent Crimes
According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.”
Regardless, in 2008 and the first months of 2009, the death penalty for non-violent crimes, mostly of an economic nature, was handed down and carried out in China, Iran and North Korea.
The restitution to the Supreme People’s Court of China of exclusive power in approving death sentences has caused the country’s courts to handle capital cases with greater prudence, in particular, those relative to non-violent crimes. Regardless, executions for financial crimes have continued.
North Korea has resumed frequent public executions, after a decline since 2000 amid international criticism, targeting officials accused of drug-trafficking, embezzlement and other non violent crimes, and North Koreans who attempt to cross into China and South Korea in search of food and to avoid political oppression.
In 2008, Iran continued to apply the death penalty for non-crimes or clearly non-violent crimes, such as “sexual relations that are not admitted”, “promoting superstitions”, spying… On January 29, 2008, Iran executed a customs contractor for “office corruption and other economic crimes,” the judiciary said, a rare use of capital punishment for economic crimes in the country.
Top Secret Death
Several countries, mainly authoritarian ones, do not issue official statistics on capital punishment, therefore the number of executions may in fact be much higher.
In some countries, such as China and Vietnam, the death penalty is considered a State secret and reports of executions carried by local media or independent sources – upon which the execution totals are mainly based – in fact represent only a fraction of the total number of executions carried out nationwide every year.
The same is applicable for Belarus and Mongolia, both former Soviet Republics, where news of executions filters mainly through relatives or international organizations long after the fact.
In almost all the other authoritarian States, particularly those that carry out executions regularly without classing the death penalty as a State secret – countries such as Iran, Malaysia, Yemen and Sudan – the main sources of information on executions are reports carried by State media. These reports do not carry news of all executions, as evidenced by information occasionally divulged by individual citizens or by political opposition groups. In September 2008, the mullahs’ Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) in Iran warned newspaper editors to censor reports about escalating number of executions, in particular that of the minors in the country.
Absolute secrecy governs executions in some countries, such as North Korea and Syria, where news of executions does not even filter through to the local media.
On October 7, 2008, the Independent learned that secret executions are being carried out in Iraq in the prisons run by Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
Other States, like Saudi Arabia, Botswana, Japan, Indonesia and Singapore divulge news of executions after they have taken place with relatives, lawyers and the condemned people themselves being kept in the dark before the actual executions take place.
This is the prevalent situation worldwide concerning the practice of the death penalty. It points to the fact that the fight against the death penalty entails, beyond the stopping of executions, a battle for transparency of information concerning capital punishment, for democracy, for the respect of the rule of law and for political rights and civil liberties.
The “Humane” Lethal Injection
Countries that recently decided to abandon the electric chair, hanging or the firing squad for lethal injection as the preferred method of execution, presented this “reform” as a conquest of civility and a humane and painless way to execute the condemned. The reality is far different.
United States: “cruel and usual”
During recent years, dozens of inmates condemned to death have presented appeals to various U.S. appeals and supreme courts maintaining that, given the length of numerous executions beyond their foreseen time, the protocol followed in the execution process did not guarantee a painless execution, and that, to the contrary, it was a “cruel and unusual punishment,” an obsolete term perhaps, but present in the Constitution of the United States as the line between acceptable and unacceptable punishment.
As is well known, in recent years there has been much controversy over the second of the three drugs used in the lethal injection protocol. The second drug, which paralyses the muscles, in reality only serves to impede the condemned from demonstrating any pain brought on by the third drug, which stops the heart, but it does not prevent the pain itself. A pain, in fact, highly acute and lasting. Studies carried out by experts of anaesthesiology, point to the possibility that the first drug to be injected, the barbiturate, used to render the condemned unconscious for the administration of the other two drugs, could prove insufficient or, in some cases, could wear off too early.
Finally, after years of debate and appeals, doubts on the method of lethal injections made their way into the hands of the United States Supreme Court, bringing a suspension to executions in many States that began on September 25, 2007 and lasted until April 16, 2008, when the Supreme Court ruled, in a 7-2 vote, against the appeal presented by two death row inmates in the State of Kentucky, Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling, establishing that the cocktail of lethal substances used does not represent a “cruel and unusual” punishment and is, therefore, not unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court recognized the risk of accidents and malfunctions, but argued that such problems always exist in any system. The Court stated that the Constitution protects citizens from “willingly” cruel and painful practices, but this does not mean that every practice of the State must be free of pain and risk. The amount of pain and/or risk involved in lethal injection, while being unpleasant and worthy of elimination, does not represent a violation of the constitution, but is, rather, “inevitable.”
Lawyer Donald Verrilli, who defended the two inmates from Kentucky, Ralph Baze and Thomas C. Bowling, along with lawyer David Barron, fully contested the three-drug protocol, recalling that in the State of Kentucky if a veterinarian used the same mix to euthanize an animal, they would be kicked out of the order of veterinarians.
China: Executions “On the Road”
In China, executions are mostly carried out with a shot to the back of the head or the heart from close range. In 1997, China introduced the lethal injection, applied first in Yunnan province in southwest China.
On January 3, 2008, Jiang Xingchang, Vice-President of the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), said that China is to expand the use of lethal injections to replace execution by shooting. “It is considered more humane,” Jiang said. Half of the 404 Intermediary People’s Tribunals, which oversee the majority of executions, are already using lethal injection according to Jiang Xingchang.
China has recently introduced mobile execution units. The units consist of specially-modified vans manned by execution teams and equipped with facilities to put people to death with lethal injections close to the venue of the trials. The “bus of death” used in China is made by Jinguan Auto, a Chongqing-based maker of ambulances, police lorries, bulletproof shields and armour-plated limos. Makers of the death vans say the vehicles and injections are a civilized alternative to the firing squad, ending the life of the condemned more quickly, clinically and safely. The switch from gunshots to injections is a sign that China “promotes human rights now,” said Kang Zhongwen, who designed the Jinguan Auto death van.
It is easy to imagine that the transition from firing squads to injections in death vans facilitates an illegal trade in prisoners’ organs. China’s refusal to give outsiders access to the bodies of executed prisoners has added to suspicions about what happens afterward: corpses are typically driven to a crematorium and burned before relatives or independent witnesses can view them.
Extradition and the Death Penalty
All the member countries of the European Union along with many other abolitionist countries are committed, on the basis of their own laws and/or through international treaties that they have undersigned, to not extradite persons suspected of capital crimes in countries where they risk being condemned to death or executed.
Some abolitionist countries have taken such commitments to be less than binding.
Italian extradition laws are among the most stringent. In the case of Benedetto Cipriani, an Italian citizen accused of multiple homicides in Connecticut, the Italian government agreed to extradition after a “note verbale” with which the Government of the United States stated that the charge pointed at Cipriani was not punishable by death in the U.S. and that, in the case of a conviction, the Italian citizen would be able to serve part of his detention in Italy. His trial ended on April 2, 2009 with a sentence of 200 years, thus respecting, in part, the agreement with Italian authorities. However, the length of the sentence effectively dismisses any possibility to follow through on the other point of the pre-extradition agreement with the U.S. that would allow Cipriani, 53 years old, to serve the second half of his sentence in Italy.
On June 27, 2009, Maged Al Molky, the captain of the Palestinian commandos that hijacked the Achille Lauro in 1985 and killed an American citizen, was expelled from Italy and sent to Syria where he risks being sentenced to death. Al Molky, who married an Italian citizen, spent 23 years and eight months in jail in Italy, with a reduction of his thirty year sentence for good behaviour. His lawyer explained that it is likely that Al Molky will be sentenced to death, because the hijacking of the Achille Lauro and other related crimes took place in the territorial waters of Syria.
On February 28, 2009, China’s top legislature ratified a treaty on extradition with Mexico. Mexico has banned the death penalty and usually would not deliver a suspect to another country, such as China, where he or she might be sentenced to death. Under the pact, the two sides agreed to settle solutions based on individual cases, instead of writing this in the pact as one of the refusal excuses.
On May 19, 2008, Seyed Mehdi Kazemi, a 21 year-old gay Iranian, obtained asylum in the United Kingdom. The young man had faced deportation to Iran on numerous occasions, where he would have faced prison, severe corporal punishment and, probably, hanging.
On February 12, 2009, British authorities recognised the political refugee status of Iranian lesbian Pegah Emambakhsh. This was due to the risk of capital punishment if she was forcibly repatriated to Iran, where homosexuals are punished with the death penalty.