THE MOST IMPORTANT FACTS OF 2006 (and the first seven months of 2007)
The worldwide situation to date
The worldwide trend towards abolition, underway for at least a decade, was again confirmed in 2006 and the first six months of 2007.
There are currently 146 countries and territories that to different extents have decided to renounce the death penalty. Of these, 93 are totally abolitionist, 9 are abolitionist for ordinary crimes, 1 (Russia) is committed to abolishing the death penalty as a member of the Council of Europe and currently observes a moratorium on executions, 4 have a moratorium on executions in place and 39 are de facto abolitionist (i.e. – no executions have taken place in the last ten years).
Countries retaining the death penalty worldwide are down to 51, compared to 54 in 2005 and 60 in 2004. The gradual abandonment of the death penalty is also evident in the declining use of capital punishment in retentionist countries, including those that actually maintain the practice of putting people to death.
In 2006, the number of countries resorting to the death penalty actually increased to 27 as opposed to 24 in 2005 and 26 in 2004.
As a consequence of this fact, the number of executions worldwide also increased. In 2006, there were at least 5,628 executions as compared with 5,494 in 2005 and 5,530 in 2004.
Once again, Asia tops the standing as the region where the vast majority of executions took place. If one considers that at least 5,000 executions took place in China, the total for 2006 corresponds to at least 5,492 executions, an increase from 5,413 in 2005 and 5,450 executions in 2004.
The Americas would be virtually death penalty free if not for the United States, the only country on the continent that carried out executions in 2006 – 53 people were executed, down from 60 in 2005 and 59 in 2004.
In Africa, in 2006, there were 80 executions, an increase from 19 in 2005 and 16 in 2004. The death penalty was used in six countries: Botswana (1), Egypt (4), Equatorial Guinea (1), Somalia (7), Sudan (65), and Uganda (2).
In Europe, the only blemish on the image of an otherwise death penalty free zone was Belarus, which executed 3 people in 2006, down from 4 in 2005.
China, Iran and Pakistan: Top Executioners of 2006
Of the 51 countries worldwide that retain the death penalty, 40 are dictatorial, authoritarian or illiberal states. These countries were responsible for approximately 5,564 executions, equal to 98,8% of worldwide total for 2006. China alone carried out at least 5,000 executions, or 89% of the worldwide total, Iran put at least 215 people to death, Pakistan 82, Iraq at least 65, Sudan at least 65, Saudi Arabia 39, Yemen 30, Vietnam at least 14, Kuwait at least 11, Somalia at least 7, Singapore at least 5, Egypt, Jordan, Malaysia and Bangladesh at least 4 each, Bahrain, North Korea and Belarus at least 3 each, Syria and Uganda at least 2 each, while at least 1 execution was reported in the United Arab Emirates and Equatorial Guinea.
Many of these countries do not officially report information of executions, so the number could be considerably 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 fight for democracy, for the respect of the rule of law, for political and civil freedoms.
Once again on the infamous podium of the world’s top executioner for 2006 are three authoritarian states: China, Iran and Pakistan.
China: Top Executioner (Despite a Drop in Executions)
The death penalty continues to be considered a state secret in China, though in recent years some reports of a quasi-official nature have begun to trickle out of academic, legislative and judiciary corridors, attesting to approximately 8,000 executions annually.
On February 27th 2006, Liu Renwen, Professor of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, confirming that, according to estimates that circulate in academic circles, 8,000 people are executed each year.
On March 15th 2007, Liu Jiachen, Political Counsel and former Vice President of the Supreme People’s Court, declared that the number of people condemned to death in 2006 was the lowest in the last ten years. He did not, however, provide exact figures.
On June 7th 2007, John Kamm, founder of the Dui Hua Foundation, stated that executions in China had decreased by at least 40% in recent years bringing the total to approximately 7,500 annually. This, in part, was thanks to the 2008 Olympic Games being awarded to host city Beijing six years ago.
On June 8th 2007, Ni Shouming, a spokesperson for the Supreme Court, declared that in the first five months of the year, the number of executions decreased by 10% in respect to the same period the prior year. A result, explained the magistrate, linked to reforms giving the Supreme Court exclusive powers of review and confirmation of death sentences, which has made lower courts more prudent in handing down capital condemnations.
In the opinion of Chen Weidong, Professor of Criminal Law at Renmin University of China, death sentences are destined to decrease by 20%.
In any event, all estimates confirm China as the world’s top executioner, a title that will probably remain unrivalled in modern history and that, besides sparking criticism from international human rights organizations, has begun to cause the Chinese authorities themselves to reflect, resulting in some limited progress.
The most significant step is surely that of the approval, on October 31st, 2006, of an amendment requiring that all death sentences receive confirmation from the Supreme Court. The new law, in effect as of January 1st, 2007, represents one of the most important reforms regarding the death penalty in China in the last twenty years and is a drastic turn from the “strike hard” campaign of the 80s.
China is becoming more prudent in it’s recourse to the death penalty. On November 9th, 2006, the President of the Supreme Court, Xiao Yang, declared, “In cases where the judge has a margin of discretion, they must always choose not to inflict capital punishment.” These words were spoken at a national conference of magistrates, however, he also added that conditions in the country were not “ripe” for total abolition. Also the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Jiang Yu, clarified that it was premature to consider the abolition of the death penalty. “Judging by the current situation in China, the conditions aren’t right” for abolition, “but our policy is to restrict its use through legislation and the legal system.”
Furthermore, starting on July 1st, 2006, all appeals regarding sentences of death in China must have public hearings. Defence lawyers may state their cases and the accused can render their deposition. The hearings are to be video-taped for possible review. “In this way,” stated Xiao Yang, President of the Supreme People’s Court, “our judiciary system will follow new and higher standards.”
Despite these first signals of a seemingly civil rights-minded approach, perpetrators of both violent and non-violent crimes continue to end up in the meat-grinder of Chinese justice: terrorist bombers and militant separatists, murderers and robbers, kidnappers and rapists, drug traffickers and street dealers, arms smugglers, counterfeiters of banknotes and handbags, pimps and grave-robbers, corrupted and corrupter, are all tried in an indiscriminate parade, exposed to the public, forced to wear a sign around their neck with their name and their offence and, in the end, put to death.
Iran: Once Again Second-Place on the Podium of Inhumanity
In 2006, Iran almost doubled its number of executions, and takes second place after China, though if the ranking was made relative to population, it would handily take first place.
There were at least 215 executions in 2006, compared to 113 in 2005. The escalation shows no sign of abating, considering that, as of June 16th 2007, there had already been 102 reported executions.
The real numbers on capital punishment could be much higher. The authorities don’t provide official statistics and those provided come from Iranian newspapers, that apparently don’t not cover all the executions.
On June 5th 2006, Iranian websites in Persian reported that a man and woman had been stoned to death three weeks earlier. On July 5th 2007, a man was stoned to death and on July 11th eight women were sentenced to death by stoning.
During 2006, 7 women were executed and 11 were reportedly on death row.
Iran executed at least 7 minors in 2006 and condemned another 6 to death, a fact which puts the country in direct violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Iran actually ratified. As of June 20th 2007, according to the organization Human Rights Watch, at least 2 minors were executed this year, while 71 were awaiting execution on death row.
Underscoring the feverish cruelty of the Iranian regime is the renewed practice of mass executions.
Between July 15th and August 2nd of 2007, 38 people were executed in 9 Iranian cities, 16 executions were held in public and 12 were broadcast on television.
The wave of executions, added to the news on July 31st 2007 of the sentence of death given to two Kurdish-Iranian journalists, Abdolvahed Hiwa Boutimar and Adnan Hosseinpour for being “mohareb”, which means “enemy of God” in Persian, received sharp criticism from both the Italian and French Governments.
The death penalty is not the only harsh punishment provided by the Iranian interpretation of Sharia or Islamic Law. There is also torture, amputation of limbs, flogging and other cruel, inhumane and degrading punishments. It is no matter of isolated incidences and the occurrence of these horrendous acts is in open violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Pakistan: Executions Doubled
In the worldwide ranking of executioners, Pakistan takes third place with at least 82 executions in 2006, almost twice as many as the preceding year when 42 people were put to death.
Pakistan, along with Iran, is the other country well-known for its part in executing minors. On June 13th 2006, Mutabar Khan was executed at the Central Prison of Peshawar after his conviction for murder in 1998. Mutabar was 16 years old at the time of his arrest in 1996. On June 6th, the Minister of the Interior granted a stay of 15 days and two days later the family of the victim conceded to the payment of “blood money,” but reneged, thus hastening the execution of Mutabar.
Democracy and the death penalty
Of the 51 countries retaining the death penalty, 11 can be defined as liberal democracies, taking into account not only a country’s political system, but its respect of human rights, civil and political liberties, free market practices and the rule of law.
There were 5 liberal democracies that carried out executions in 2006 for a total of 64 executions, equal to 1,2% of the worldwide total: The United States (53), Japan (4), Mongolia (at least 3), Indonesia (3) and Botswana (1).
In 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007 there were no executions in Taiwan, the other democracy that performed one execution in 2005.
In 2006, the use of the death penalty in the United States continued its decline. The number of executions was the lowest in ten years: 53, almost half that of the record number of executions, 98, in 1999.
Of the 53 people executed in 2006, 5 were “volunteers” who, in order to accelerate the process towards their execution, waived their legal right to appeals available to those on death row.
The southern part of the United States carried out 83% of the executions last year. As usual, Texas alone was responsible for almost half of the executions nationwide, 24 to be exact.
The number of death sentences issued also declined: 112 in 2006 as opposed to 128 in 2005 and 138 in 2004.
The total number of inmates on death row in 2006 (3,344) is up slightly from 2005 (3,254). The difference can be explained by the less-felt effects of civil rights rulings by the Supreme Court between 2002 and 2005 that excluded the mentally retarded and minors, respectively, from facing execution.
Furthermore, for the first time a National Gallup Poll showed that life imprisonment surpassed the death penalty as a justifiable sentence for serious crimes. A successive poll by the Death Penalty Information Center, made public on June 9th2007, revealed that 58% of Americans were in favour of a moratorium on executions.
The methods of carrying out executions, racial prejudices and class prejudices, but, above all, continued discoveries of miscarriages of justice and wrongful executions have all contributed to invigorating the debate on the death penalty.
On May 11th 2007, Curtis Edward McCarty was released from death row, where he had served 21 years. His is the 124th case of exoneration concerning death row inmates since 1973 and the first of this year.
The real battle over the death penalty is being fought at the level of the state legislatures, where continued debate over a moratorium on executions and the abolition of the death penalty has been particularly charged.
In 2006 and 2007, the doubts that plagued judges and politicians were greatly linked to the use of lethal injection. These doubts have led to the suspension of executions in California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri and North Carolina.
The state of Illinois has adhered to a moratorium on executions for the seventh year in a row. On January 12th 2006, New Jersey became the first state to introduce by law a moratorium on capital punishment.
In the state of New York, where the Court of Appeals declared aspects of the death penalty unconstitutional in 2004, the legislature has postponed once again, purposefully, revisions of law, resulting in a de facto moratorium.
Since February 21st 2006 in California, all executions have been suspended by a judge wanting a thorough review of lethal injection procedures. Between hearings and postponements, the suspensions have lasted all of 2006 and are expected to continue through 2007 and the first months of 2008.
On January 25th 2007, North Carolina blocked all executions on the orders of a judge, also for problems related to lethal injection.
On February 12th 2007, the House of Representatives of New Mexico approved a bill that abolishes the death penalty, replacing it with life imprisonment without parole but the bill was halted by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 8.
On February 21st 2007, the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, called upon the state legislature to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole.
Going against the trend was South Dakota, which, on July 11th 2007, carried out its first execution in 60 years. The condemned did not ask for clemency and expressed his will to die. He was 25 years old.
Japan maintains maximum discretion concerning executions. Detainees are usually not informed of the date of their execution until the day that they are hanged. According to a report by the Japan Federation of Bar Associations published on January 18th 2007, Japanese courts increasingly sentenced people to death. In fact, from 1 condemnation to death in 2003, Japan has arrived at 19 death sentences in 2006. The number of inmates on death row has continued to mount as well.
In 2006, there were 4 people put to death and, so far, in 2007, 6 people have been executed already, three on April 27th and the other three on August 23rd. The Minister of Justice reportedly ordered the executions because the total number of death row inmates had surpassed 100.
Executions in Indonesia were somewhat rare until 2004, when, as part of a national anti-drug crusade launched by President Megawati Sukarnoputri in view of October elections, three foreign nationals were executed by firing squad for trafficking heroin.
There were three executions on September 22nd 2006 of three Christians, Fabianus Tibo, Marianus Riwu and Dominggus Silva, who were condemned to death in 2001 for leading a crowd the year before in an assault on an Islamic school of the Koran in the province of Central Sulawesi, where more than 200 Muslims were killed.
On April 28th 2007, a 40 year old man was put to death for the murder of a family of six, including four children, in 1999.
In recent years, the Government of Taiwan has more than once expressed its political will to abolish the death penalty in the greater context of human rights. This positive change has translated to a drastic reduction in death sentences and executions in the country where from 32 executions in 1998 it has arrived at zero executions in 2006.
On April 1st 2006, after a two year suspension, executions began again in Botswana with the secret hanging of Modisane Ping, condemned for the murder of his girlfriend and her son, a six year old child.
Abolition, De Facto Abolition and Moratoriums
The worldwide trend towards abolition, underway for the last ten years, was reaffirmed in 2006 and the first seven months of 2007.
Four countries became completely abolitionist. On July 26th, 2007, a law came into effect in Rwanda that definitively wiped capital punishment off the books in that country. Albania as an abolitionist for ordinary crimes already, became an absolute abolitionist with its ratifying of Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms Concerning the Abolition of the Death Penalty in All Circumstances, while the Philippines and Khyrgyzstan abolished the death penalty after years of moratorium.
Zambia has gone 10 years without an execution and is, therefore, a de facto abolitionist.
In Europe, France abolished the death penalty at the constitutional level at the onset of 2007, and similar processes are underway in both Italy and Georgia.
New Jersey became the first of the United States to introduce a moratorium by law.
Further steps towards abolition and other positive developments were reported in Africa (Gabon, Mali, Morocco, and Tanzania) and in Asia (Jordan, Thailand, Papua New Guinea and Uzbekistan).
Resumption of Executions
There were also cases of executions resuming after years of suspension in Bahrain, Botswana, United Arab Emirates, Ethiopia, Equatorial Guinea and Malaysia.
In the U.S.A., South Dakota held its first execution in 60 years.
Sharia Law and the Death Penalty
In 2006, at least 541 executions, up from 302 the previous year, were carried out in 16 Muslim-majority countries, many of which were ordered by religious tribunals applying a strict interpretation of Sharia law. However, the problem is not the Koran itself as illustrated by the fact that not all countries that observe its teaching predominantly practice the death penalty, or make the text the basis of their penal of 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 49 Muslim-majority states worldwide, 21 can be considered abolitionist in various forms, while 28 retain the death penalty, of which 16 applied capital punishment in 2006.
Stoning, hanging, beheading and firing squad are the methods which were used to enforce the Sharia in 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007.
Sentences of death by stoning were issued in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and in Iran, where at least three people were stoned to death in the period from 2006 to the first seven months of 2007. On June 5th 2006, Iranian websites reported that a man and a woman had been stoned to death three weeks earlier. On July 5th 2007, a man was stoned to death, after being convicted of adultery and having already spent 11 years in prison on the same charge.
Two men and a woman were stoned to death in Pakistan in 2007, but in a extra-judiciary case, tried by a tribal jury.
Various sentences of death by stoning were commuted in the United Arab Emirates.
A typical alternative to stoning in Sharia-based death sentences is hanging and though, generally, the preferred method for executing men, women are not spared this fate. Hangings, as called for by the Sharia, were performed in Afghanistan, Iran, Kuwait, Pakistan and Sudan in 2006.
Hangings are often carried out in public and supplementary punishments, such as flogging and amputation of limbs, often proceed the actual execution. This was the case in Iran, where executions were sometimes contested by the crowds called upon to witness.
Beheading, as a method to carry out Sharia-based sentences, is exclusive to Saudi Arabia, the Islamic nation that follows the strictest interpretation of Islamic law. Usually, the execution is held in the city where the crime took place 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 amidst cries of “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is great!”).
Saudi Arabia has one of the highest numbers of executions in the world. It’s all-time record was established in 1995 with 191 executions. There were 39 executions in 2006, much lower than the 90 recorded in 2005. However, in the first six months of 2007, there have already been 119 beheadings.
Not really considered an Islamic punishment, the firing squad was used in 2006 and 2007 in Sharia-based death sentences in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.
According to Islamic law, the family of the victim of a crime can ask for financial compensation called “blood money,” pardon of the perpetrator or allow the execution to take place. Cases of clemency related to “blood money” were recorded in Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Iran, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen in 2006 and 2007.
In Somalia, after the refusal of “blood money,” the family members of victims often carried out the execution of the condemned. A particularly disturbing case occurred on May 2nd 2006 in Mogadishu, where a 16 year old boy, Mohamed Moalim, on the orders of an Islamic tribunal, publicly executed the man convicted of the murder of his father. Mohamed approached the condemned, Omar Hussein, who was hooded and tied to a pole, stabbing him repeatedly with a knife in the chest, neck and head until he was dead.
The Death Penalty for Minors
The application of the death penalty to those under 18 years of age at the time of committing crime is in direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In 2006, there were at least 8 minors executed, 7 in Iran and 1 in Pakistan. In 2007, 2 minors were executed in Iran and 1 in Saudi Arabia.
The “War on Drugs”
The prohibition of drugs made a consistent contribution to the number of executions in 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007. In the name of the drug war and continually more rigid laws, executions were carried out in Saudi Arabia, China, Kuwait, Iran, North Korea, Singapore and Vietnam.
Death sentences were issued though not executed in Bangladesh, Brunei, Indonesia, United Arab Emirates, Malaysia, Laos, Thailand and Yemen.
Of the 39 executions in 2006 in Saudi Arabia, 14 were for drug-related crimes. In the first seven months of 2007, there were at least 36 people decapitated for drug-related crimes; five were Saudi citizens – all the others were foreign nationals.
As usually occurs in China around national holidays and dates of international symbolic importance, dozens of drug-traffickers were condemned or executed on June 26th 2006 in honour of the International Day Against Drugs. There were at least 61 executions to mark the occasion, 26 of which occurred on the day itself.
Many executions in Iran are for drug-related crimes, but according to human rights observers many of the executions for common crimes, particularly those related to drugs, are actually political prisoners in opposition to the government.
In Singapore, the death penalty is mandatory for 15 or more grams of heroin, 30 grams of cocaine or 500 grams of marijuana. According to statistics published in January of 2007, more than 420 people were executed in 1991, most of them for drug-related crimes.
Of the 14 executions reported by the state media in Vietnam in 2006, 13 were for drug crimes. A directive of the Supreme Court of the People in July of 2001 calls for the death penalty for the possession of more than 600 grams of heroin.
The “War on Terrorism”
In 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007, new anti-terrorist laws were approved in Malaysia and Bahrain, while in Bangladesh the Government is studying a bill that calls for the death penalty and restrictions of public freedoms and civil rights.
Following the approval in 2005 of new anti-terrorist laws, almost all 65 Iraq executions in 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007 were for the crime of terrorism.
In 2006, the President of the United States, George Bush, signed the new version of the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorist legislation adopted after the September 11th attacks that expired on December 31st 2005. A part of the new law limits the rights of appeal for those condemned to death.
In the name of the fight against terrorism and “legitimized” by the Great Coalition born following the September 11th attacks in the U.S., authoritarian and illiberal countries have continued in their violation of human rights within their own countries and, in some cases, have executed and persecuted people involved in pacific opposition or in activities disliked by the regime. This happened, in particular, in China with the Muslim leaders of the Uighurs, the movement for an independent state in eastern Turkestan. On February 8th 2007, Ismail Semed was executed in Urumchi in Xinjiang. He was condemned to death in October of 2005 for “attempted separatism.” He was a political activist for the human rights of the Uighurs.
Persecution of Adherents to Religious and Spiritual Movements
In 2005, a new law came into effect in China
that the Government hailed as “a significant step in the protection of the freedom of religion for Chinese citizens.” Regardless, the repression continued of religious and spiritual movements not authorized by the state: Protestants and Catholics, Uighur Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. The Government also continued its repression of movements which it considers “cults”, in particular, the Falun Gong, whose followers continue to be arrested, detained and there is proof that some have died from torture and abuse.
In North Korea
, there was no progress in 2006. Because of the inaccessibility of the country and the lack of timely news, it is difficult to document the continued persecution in 2006. Religious and human rights groups outside North Korea have continued to provide information on the persecution of Protestants, Catholics, Buddhists and members of clandestine Christian churches. Faithful Christians have been imprisoned, beaten, tortured and killed for having read the Bible and preached their faith, in particular, for having ties to Evangelical groups beyond the border in China.
The campaign conducted in Vietnam
against non-authorized religions continued in 2006 and in the first seven months of 2007. Particularly harsh is the repression of the Montagnard, the Christian ethnic minority that lives in the central high plains, accused of believing in an “americanist religion” and cooperating with U.S. troops during the Vietnam War. According to the Montagnard Foundation, there are more than 350 ethnic Degar Christians in Vietnamese prisons.
Death Penalty for Political Motives and Dissent
It is the opinion of human rights observers that many of those executed in Iran for common crimes, particularly for drug-related crimes, are, in fact, political executions of subversives.
Again in 2006, the Iranian judiciary continued to view as “mohareb”, that is as enemies of Allah, those people arrested during anti-regime protests held in the capital and other Iranian cities, during which demonstrators and the Pasdaran, the guards of the Islamic Revolution created to defend the regime of the Mullah. The charge of being a mohareb in Iran brings about a speedy and severe trial that often ends with the death penalty.
On July 16th 2007, two Kurdish-Iranian journalists, Abdolvahed Hiwa Boutimar and Adnan Hosseinpour, were condemned to death after being judged “enemies of God” by the tribunal of Marivan in Iranian Kurdistan. “Acts against national security” and “contacts with subversive organizations” were the charges against the two journalists.
In its 2001 Report to the Commission on Human Rights of the United Nations, North Korea claimed to have reduced the number of capital crimes from 33 to 5. However, 4 of these are of an essentially political nature. The penal code, in fact, calls for the mandatory death penalty for activities “in collusion with the imperialists” to “suppress the struggle for national liberation.” The death penalty cannot also be used in cases of “ideological divergence”, “opposition to socialism” and “counter-revolutionary crimes”. On February 1st 2007, a sergeant and an official of the border guard were condemned to death for helping people leave the country that the regime defined as “deserters”, or “those that betray the motherland and escape to other states.”
Top Secret Death
Many countries, mostly authoritarian, do not provide official statistics on their practice of the death penalty.
In China and Vietnam it is considered a state secret and reports of executions by local newspapers minimally represent the phenomenon.
In full continuity with the Soviet tradition, the death penalty is considered a state secret in Belarus, where information on death sentences and executions are provided by international organizations, state media, or from the prisons themselves through family members of the executed. Also here, the real number of executions could much higher.
In almost all the authoritarian countries, from Egypt to Iran to Yemen or Sudan, where the death penalty is not a state secret, the Government does not provide official information. The only information available on executions is from state media which does not report all the facts.
There are also situations in which executions are held in absolute secrecy and news does not filter out even through local papers. This is the case with North Korea.
There are, finally, countries where executions become public domain after they have occurred. Family members, lawyers and the condemned inmates themselves are kept in the dark as to when the execution will take place. This is what happens in Saudi Arabia, Botswana and Japan.
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 the change as a conquest of civility and a humane and painless way to execute the condemned. The reality is far different.
On June 12th 2006, in a unanimous vote, the Supreme Court of the United States recognized the right of those convicted to death to present appeals on the legitimacy of lethal injection. The decision of the judges of Washington opened the way for a legal battle on a national scale.
The argument common to the appeals in various states is that the second drug administered to paralyze muscles, in reality only impedes the executed from demonstrating pain caused by the third drug, which stops the heart, but does not prevent the executed from feeling the pain. A pain of excrutiating intensity and of considerable duration. Various experts and technicians of anaesthesiology have pointed out that the first drug to be injected, a barbiturate which functions as an anaesthetic, may not be sufficient to render the condemned unconscious for the successive phases of the execution.
On April 24th 2007, a scientific study conducted in the United States on 41 lethal injections carried out in California and North Carolina in the last twenty years, raised more doubts on the capacity of lethal injection to inflict death without inflicting pain. The study, published in the scientific review Public Library of Science Journal, showed that sodium pentothal, the barbiturate which served to render the subject unconscious, was used in fixed amounts without considering the specific differences of each subject, such as body weight and possible pathologies. If not completely unconscious, said the researchers, the condemned could feel a sensation of suffocating with the introduction of the second drug, pancuronium bromide, a paralyzing substance. In the end comes the potassium chloride which provokes cardiac arrest – at this point the condemned could have a sensation similar to that of being burned alive.
The results of the research were published in the medical review along with an editorial by the magazines editors explaining that it was not their intent suggest finding better methods, but to altogether eliminate the death penalty.
On the basis of these doubts, judges from Arkansas, California, Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Ohio, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and the Federal Penitentiary System blocked executions.
In 1997, China began using lethal injection (it was first used in Yunnan) and within a few years, mobile units, created by modifying vans, started operating in many provinces, able to reach far-flung locations of executions.
The death wagon is a common white and blue police van that waits in front of the courthouse for the verdict to be pronounced. Inside, there is a cot that can be raised or lowered like an operating table. It is located at the centre of the van to allow room for the justice official, the court’s medical expert and for one or two police to immobilize the condemned with straps attached to the cot.
Once the needle is inserted, a police officer presses a button and the lethal potion is automatically injected into the vein. The execution can be viewed on a monitor next to the driver’s seat and even recorded. With this new tool, executions can be carried out minutes after the sentence is handed down, without the necessity of moving through unpredictable public spaces.