The death penalty worldwide

07 July 2003 :


The 2003 report is dedicated to the President of Kenya Mwai Kibaki, for his newly-elected government´s announced intention of abolishing the death penalty in the country and for commuting to life imprisonment, on 25 February 2003, the death sentences of 195 inmates whilst freeing another 28 who had served between 15 and 20 years on death row.
The foreword is written by HOC honorary president George Ryan, former governor of the US state of Illinois, and describes his conscience-driven decision to empty the state´s death row. In January 2003, Governor Ryan, during the final days of his mandate, commuted the death sentences of 167 people on death row to life imprisonment and gave innocence-based pardons to another four men.
This year´s report, once again edited by Elisabetta Zamparutti and published by Marsilio, includes the lyrics of Nessuno tocchi Caino, the anti-death penalty song by popular artists Enrico Ruggeri and Andrea Miro that won the best lyrics category and placed third in Italy´s biggest annual musical event last February.


The worldwide situation to date

The practice of the death penalty has drastically diminished in the past few years. Today the countries or territories that have abolished it or decline to apply it number 130.
Of these: 78 are totally abolitionist; 14 are abolitionist for ordinary crimes; 2 are committed to abolition as members of the Council of Europe and in the meanwhile observe a moratorium; 6 countries are currently observing a moratorium and 30 are de facto abolitionist, not having executed any death sentences in the past ten years.
Retentionist countries total 66, though not all of these apply capital punishment regularly. In 2002, just 34 of these countries carried out 4,078 executions, a slight decrease from the 2001 total of 4,700.
Asia carried out the majority of these executions in 2002: 3,925. Of these 3,138 were carried out in China alone. Executions on the African continent totalled 63. In Europe 19 executions were carried out: 3 by state authorities in Belarus, the only European country that still retains the death penalty, and the others by Sharia tribunals under Chechen control in Russia (15) and in Georgia (1). Even the American continent would be practically death penalty free were it not for the 71 executions carried out in the United States.

Top executioners for 2002: China, Iran and Iraq

Of the 66 retentionist countries, 52 are governed by dictatorial, authoritarian and illiberal regimes. In these countries in 2002, at least 3, 978 executions were carried out, equal to 97. 5% of the world total. One country alone, China, was responsible for 3,138 executions, around 77% of the world total. Iran executed 316 people; Iraq at least 214; Saudi Arabia 49; Sudan at least 40; Vietnam at least 34; Kazakhstan at least 31; Tajikistan at least 25; Pakistan 20 and Singapore at least 18. Many of these countries do not issue official statistics on the death penalty, considered in some a state secret, therefore the statistics are compiled through independent sources and the numbers may in fact be much higher than those estimated. This is definitely the case in North Korea and Syria, where executions are kept entirely covert.
In a final analysis, the definitive solution to the death penalty problem in these countries lies not so much in the campaign against capital punishment in itself, but rather in the fight for democracy, the respect of human rights and the rule of law. A case in point is Afghanistan where in 2002 just one death sentence was issued and no executions carried out. In the previous year, the last of the Taleban regime, executions had totalled at least 68.
The podium for the most prolific executioners of 2002 goes to China, Iran and Iraq.

China: another record year for executions
Chinese authorities do not publish statistics on the death penalty, considered a "state secret". However, according to a publication called Disidai or The Fourth Generation written by a Communist Party insider under the pseudonym Zong Hairen, 15,000 people were executed in the country every year between 1998 to 2001. This statistic is a shocking four times higher than the highest annual totals estimated by the West and a record number since the Cultural Revolution.
The New York Times reported that Beijing executed over 3,000 people in 2002.
The Strike Hard campaign, launched by President Jiang Zemin in April 2001 to clamp down on crime, was renewed with vigour in 2002: according to a China Daily September 9 report, 3,000 people had been executed since April. Trials in China were frequently marred by torture and legal assistance was quite rare, the newspaper said.
Armed robbers, rapists, pimps, corruptors and corrupted, drug, counterfeit currency and cigarette traffickers, fraudsters and embezzlers, multiple murderers, kidnappers, big drug traffickers and bombers were judged in mass trials, exposed to public scorn, and made to wear a placard round their necks bearing their name and the crimes they were accused of and soon afterwards executed.
HOC estimates, from various news sources including reports from the official Xinhua news agency, that at least 3,138 executions were carried out in China in 2002. Reports of organ harvesting from executed prisoners were registered again last year.

Iran: an escalation of executions and other cruel and inhuman punishments
Iran´s practice of the death penalty is as widespread as China´s in proportion to its population.
In 2002, Iran carried out at least 316 executions including the stoning to death of a couple. The previous year 198 executions were registered. Punishments such as amputation and whipping were also on the increase.
According to the World Organisation Against Torture, in the first eight months of 2002, government media reported 250 executions. A secret internal government document, made public by the People´s Mujahedin, the armed opposition to the Iranian government, revealed that 407 people were executed in the first half of the Iranian year (March 21- September 22 of the western calendar). The same document reveals ten executions by stoning were carried out between March 21 and August 22, 2002.
Hands Off Cain found reports of only 192 executions in the first half of the year through its daily monitoring of government media - assuming the data contained in the secret document to be correct, government-controlled media failed to report at least 70% of executions in Iran last year.

Iraq: the death penalty and more under Saddam Hussein
Hands Off Cain registered 214 executions in Iraq last year from reports carried by Iraqi media or opposition sources. In 2001, at least 179 people had been put to death. Saddam´s elder son Uday was considered a big fan of executions, and along with his brother Qusay, is said to have signed around 10,000 death warrants.
Executions of political dissidents and military ´conspirators´ were numerous in 2002. The sole criticism of Saddam was a capital offence and perpetrators ended up before the firing squad or were made an example of by having their foreheads branded or ears, hands or tongue amputated. Such punishments, prescribed by law, were also summarily applied by the Fedayeem Saddam militia.
Even in 2002, cases of tongue amputation for criticising Saddam were reported, as did mass prisoner executions - a practice that the Iraqi regime often used to deal with jail over-population.

Democracy and the death penalty

Of the 66 countries that retain the death penalty, 13 are classed as liberal democracies. Of these, 5 carried out a total of 100 executions in 2002, amounting to 2.5% of the world total. The United States executed 71 people, India 12, Thailand 9, Taiwan 6 and Japan 2.

United States
The total of executions in 2002 was slightly up compared to 2001: 71 to 66. Of the 38 states that have the death penalty, only 13 carried out executions, the lowest number since 1993. As always since the re-introduction of the death penalty in 1976, the Southern states were the most prolific executioners. Texas alone carried out 33 executions, nearly half the national total. For the second year running, it also executed people who were minors at the time of the crime: 3 people, all of whom were black. Of the 21 minors executed in the US since 1976, 13 have been put to death in Texas.
In 2002, the US Supreme Court refused to consider ending the execution of minors, but it ruled that the execution of mentally-retarded people constituted "cruel and unusual punishment," violating the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution. In another landmark ruling in 2002, it deemed death sentences issued by judges and not juries as unconstitutional.
In 22 of the 38 retentionist US states a moratorium on executions was discussed, mainly in congressional debates questioning the functioning of the capital punishment system.

The death penalty is applicable to13 crimes in Japan, but in practice is only passed in murder cases. Execution dates are kept secret: inmates often spend decades on death row and are themselves informed of their impending execution just hours before it is scheduled to take place. Lawyers and relatives are usually informed afterwards. Executions are normally carried out in summer or at the end of the year when parliament is in recess, to avoid parliamentary debate. This was the case for the two executions carried out last September, prompting the bipartisan league of anti-death penalty parliamentarians to ask Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama for a moratorium during the Christmas recess.

Thailand resumed executions in 1995 after a de facto eight-year suspension. In 2002, 9 people were put to death, down from 18 the previous year. The Thai authorities generally inform inmates of their execution in the morning and carry it out in the afternoon of the same day. Prisoners are placed behind a curtain, tied to a stake with their hands behind their back and machine-gunned. Last November, the Thai parliament voted to replace this method of execution by lethal injection.

Abolition and moratoriums in 2002

Confirming the positive trend of the last ten years, 2002 saw a number of countries abolishing the death penalty or observing a moratorium on executions.
Serbia and Montenegro introduced new penal norms replacing the death penalty by 40 years´ imprisonment, with the Serbian Parliament taking the lead on February 26 and Montenegro following suit on June 19.
On April 9, 2002 Cyprus amended the Penal Code to remove the death penalty as punishment for crimes committed in time of war.
On May 16, Mali´s new government led by Amadou Toumani Tourč, approved a two-year moratorium on executions, and on May 20, Timor Leste became the new millennium´s first new sovereign state, with a totally abolitionist constitution.
On July 27, Guatemala´s President Alfonso Portillo introduced a moratorium on executions for the duration of his mandate up to 2004, and proposed abolitionist legislation to the country´s National Assembly. The move was made in response to a request by Pope John Paul II and was announced a just prior to his visit to the Latin American country.
On August 3, Turkey approved a package of reforms required by the European Union to facilitate the country´s membership. Turkey abolished the death penalty for terrorism, leaving it as punishment only for crimes committed in time of war or imminent threat of war. The country, that was de facto abolitionist since 1984, now joined the ranks of the abolitionists for ordinary crimes.
On September 2, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus signed and submitted to Parliament a decree approving the abolition of the death penalty even in time of war. Also in September, Philippines´ President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo imposed a moratorium on executions to await the outcome of a parliamentary debate on abolition.
On October 22, the United Kingdom announced the abolition of the death penalty for treason and piracy in the Turks and Caicos islands with the consent of the local authorities, thus making the territory completely abolitionist.

Sharia-based death sentences

In 2002, at least 773 executions were carried out in 18 Muslim-majority countries or territories, many of which were passed by Islamic tribunals applying a strict interpretation of Sharia law.
Stonings, hangings, beheadings and shooting were the punishments imposed by Sharia courts in a third of the Muslim-majority countries. Death-by-stoning sentences were handed out in Pakistan and Nigeria, but only Iran applied them. A woman, Goli Nik-Khou, and Seyyed Younes Assadi, a man, who had been sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1987 were inexplicably stoned to death in Naqadeh after their term of incarceration.
Stoning is a method of execution applied for crimes of a moral nature, and more often applied to women, whereas men are generally hanged, frequently in public. Cases of women hanged in public have also been registered. Whippings and amputation are frequently imposed as a supplementary punishment and crucifixion of the corpse after execution has also been known to take place.
Beheading continues to be the preferred method of execution in Saudi Arabia in carrying out Sharia-based sentences. In 2002 executions in this Middle Eastern country were considerably less than the previous year´s total: 49 to 82. Saudi Arabia is the only country known to have carried out beheadings in 2002.
Death by firing squad, though not an Islamic punishment, was also applied for Sharia-based executions last year.

Death penalty for blasphemy

On November 6, 2002 Hashem Aghajari, a 45-year-old history lecturer, was sentenced to death for blasphemy after he questioned the right of the clergy to rule the Islamic Republic.
Following a closed trial without jury in the western city of Hamedan, Aghajari, a leading member of the reformist political party Islamic Revolution Mujahedeen Organization was also sentenced to 74 lashes, banned from teaching for 10 years and exiled to three remote Iranian cities for eight years.
Aghajari angered conservative clerics by delivering a speech on "Islamic Protestantism" in which he compared the earthly powers enjoyed by Iran´s clerical rulers to medieval Catholic Popes.

Death penalty for drug-related crimes

Drug-related offences under ever-stricter laws to combat drug proliferation contributed greatly to upping executions totals in China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Eight of Saudi Arabia´s 42 executions were imposed for drugs and China marked the international anti-drugs day with a wave of public executions. On June 26 alone, 64 people were put to death following mass sentencing rallies attended by thousands of onlookers and followed by the public destruction of huge quantities of prohibited drugs.

Death penalty for terrorism

The world coalition against terrorism formed after September 11 has liberal democracies allied with dictatorial, authoritarian and fundamentalist regimes. The war on terror has resulted in the restriction of civil liberties in the former and oftentimes served to justify human rights violations and repression in the latter.
Many states have approved anti-terrorism laws - that include the death penalty - that have at times been used to persecute and execute dissidents, such as Chechens by the Russian authorities and Uighur militants, Falun Gong practitioners or Tibetans by China.

Death penalty for adherents to spiritual movements

Since 1983, over 23, 000 people have been arrested in China for non-authorised religious practice. At least 123 have been condemned to death. Catholic bishops have been incarcerated for decades, Protestant Evangelists have ended up on death row and thousands of Falun Gong practitioners have been interned in psychiatric hospitals.
On March 7, Erping Zhang, Falun Gong´s international spokesperson, said that President Jiang Zemin had ordered Chinese security forces to shoot practitioners caught in the act of putting up the spiritual movement´s posters or symbols in public.
Religious and human rights groups continued to denounce abuses in North Korea. Christians were imprisoned and tortured for reading the Bible and preaching about God, and chemical and biological weapons were experimented on some of them. According to the US State Department´s annual report on religious freedom, executions, torture and imprisonment for religious reasons took place also in 2002.
The South-Carolina based Montagnard Foundation denounced the execution of three ethnic Montagnards in the central Vietnam highlands during the Vietnamese authorities´ campaign against "illegal" Christian churches. The country´s Communist government hold these churches to be "contaminated by American protestants and therefore harmful to national interests." The three Montagnards were injected with an unknown substance that led to their death after severe convulsions.

Death penalty for political dissent

According to the SMCCDI (Students Movements Coordination Committee for Democracy in Iran) four Esfahan residents were executed between April 8 and 9 for their part in the October 2001 riots, when hundreds of youths took to the streets following a defeat of the Iranian national football team in a World Cup qualifying match. The four were accused of "banditry", "hooliganism" and "aggression" after clashing with police as furious fans shouting "Death to the Islamic Republic" tore down street decorations put up to welcome Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who was to visit to the city the following day.

Death penalty for sex "crimes"

On January 1, 2002, Saudi Arabia beheaded three gay men, Ali Ben Hatan Ben Saad, Mohamed Ben Suleiman Ben Mohamed and Khalil Ben Abdallah, for sodomy.
In China, exploiting prostitution was punished by execution.


Presenting Italy´s agenda for its EU presidency term to the European Parliament on July 2, Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi pledged to present the resolution for a worldwide moratorium on executions at the upcoming UN General Assembly. A similar pledge had already been expressed on behalf of the government by Vice-Premier Gianfranco Fini on May 6, during a meeting with former Illinois governor George Ryan.
A resolution on the death penalty calling for a moratorium with a view to abolition has attracted support from 89 countries at the UN Commission for Human Rights and the UNGA between 1997 and 2003. At the 59th session of the UNCHR, held in a climate of strong international tension as war in Iraq broke out, a record 75 countries co-sponsored the death penalty resolution, up from 68 the previous year.
Moreover the worldwide situation regarding the retention of the death penalty has radically changed since 1994, the first time a moratorium resolution was presented at the UNGA, by the first Berlusconi government in fact. Since then 33 countries have stopped applying capital punishment.
Judging from voting behaviour at the UNCHR and country status on the death penalty - and envisaging a worst case scenario - HOC estimates that a resolution presented at the next UNGA will be succesful.
Votes in favour would total around 95-100 of a total 191 UN member states; abstentions from 21-26 and votes against would amount to 62.
An amendment upholding the "domestic jurisdiction" that will certainly be presented by retentionist states such as Egypt or Singapore would be probably co-sponsored by 66 countries and rejected by a vote of 93 against to 83 in favour, with 12 abstentions and three countries undecided between a vote against and an abstention.
In such a situation, the time is ripe for a return to the UNGA and the ensuing achievement of a historic goal in the battle for human rights: a global moratorium on executions.