31 July 2015 :
Towards the End of the Cain-State
As can be seen in the 2015 Report by Hands off Cain, the worldwide trend towards abolition, underway for more than fifteen years, was again confirmed in 2014 and the first six months of 2015.
Since the founding of Hands off Cain in 1993, at least 64 of the 97 retentionist States that were members of the UN at that time, have abandoned the practice of the death penalty and 22 of them have done so since 2006, following the re-launching of the initiative at the United Nations.
On 18 December 2014, the UN General Assembly advanced again its call to end the use of the death penalty with the passage of a new Resolution calling on States to establish a moratorium on executions, with a view to abolishing the practice. It was the fifth time such text was adopted since 2007. The record number of 117 votes in favour testifies to the positive developments taking place in the world towards the end of the Cain-State and the overcoming of the fake and archaic principle of “an eye for an eye.” This further step towards the abolition of the death penalty was determined by the dialogic and creative choice of Hands Off Cain and the Nonviolent Radical Party to offer – from the beginning and exclusively – the moratorium on executions as a key step towards abolition.
Once again, we welcome some positive steps taken in the United States, where in May 2015 Nebraska became the nineteenth State of the federation to abolish the death penalty, and the seventh to do so in eight years. Furthermore, another six States have not carried out an execution in more than ten years (hence, we can consider that they are implementing a “de facto moratorium”), and in four other States the Governors essentially put executions on hold because of concerns about the death penalty system.
Furthermore, President Barack Obama has maintained a de facto moratorium on federal executions (which, by the way, have been very rare in the last decades), which has lasted for 12 years. He also ordered a review of the lethal injection protocols, which he defined "deeply troubling", and raised significant questions on equitable application of the death penalty in terms of race.
Finally, on 13 July 2015, President Barack Obama reduced the prison sentences of 46 non-violent offenders, including fourteen serving life sentences, saying “their punishments didn’t fit the crime.” Obama has now issued 89 commutations during his presidency, including 76 to non-violent offenders sentenced for drug crimes. Last commutations mark the most in a single day since the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and the 89 commutations Obama has granted while in office surpassed the combined number granted by presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
The commutations come as the administration is working to reduce costs and overcrowding in federal prisons and to provide relief to inmates. However, it’s only a drop in the sea of the prison population, as the United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, yet it has almost 25 percent of the world’s total prison population.
Lethal Effects of the “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror”
The slight increase in executions in 2014 as compared to 2013 is explained by increases recorded in Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, if the trend of the first six months of 2015 were to be confirmed, we would have a record number of executions at the end of the year. This is due, in particular, to escalating numbers of executions recorded in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and once again in Iran and to the resumption of executions in Jordan, Pakistan and Indonesia.
The “War on Drugs” and “War on Terror” have contributed quite substantially to the practice of the death penalty in 2014 and the first six months of 2015.
The election of Hassan Rouhani as President of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 14 June 2013 has led many observers, some human rights defenders and the international community to be optimistic. However, the new Government has not changed its approach regarding the application of the death penalty, and indeed, the rate of executions has risen sharply since the summer of 2013. Since Rouhani took office as President, almost 2,000 prisoners have been executed in Iran: 46% of those executed in 2014 were hanged for drug-related crimes, and this figure has rocketed to 70% in 2015, as of 30 June.
In Saudi Arabia, a surge in executions began towards the end of the reign of King Abdullah, who died on 23 January, accelerating this year under his successor King Salman, who took a strong position on law and order, in particular against drug traffickers. About half of the beheadings in the Saudi Kingdom were carried out for drug offences.
In 2014, Egypt carried out at least 15 executions after a de facto moratorium dating back to 2011. Another 12 people were hanged in 2015 (as of 30 June), including seven people hanged over violence that followed the 2013 ouster of President Mohammed Morsi. Since Morsi’s ouster in July 2013, Egypt’s military-backed government has waged a relentless crackdown on political dissent – largely targeting Morsi supporters. In 2014, in six different trials for violence-related charges, Egyptian courts meted out preliminary death sentences to at least 1,434 supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group. This was the largest number of defendants handed down death penalties in Egypt’s modern history.
Among the setbacks recorded in the last year and a half, the resumption of executions in Jordan is, perhaps, the most negative, because capital punishment had not been carried out since 2006 thanks only to His Majesty King Abdullah’s will and not as an official stance. In December 2014, eleven death-row inmates were executed for murder. Furthermore, in February 2015, Jordan executed two Al-Qaeda prisoners in retaliation for the killing of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State (IS) group.
After a hiatus registered in 2014, Indonesia resumed executions in 2015 and, as of 30 June, had already executed 14 drug convicts, in the first executions to take place under new President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who took office in October 2014 and, in early December 2014, he ordered the relevant authorities to carry out the court verdicts for drug traffickers who have exhausted all avenues for appeals.
In December 2014, Pakistan lifted the six-year moratorium on executions in terrorism-related cases and, in March 2015, the federal government formally lifted the de facto ban on capital punishment of all the condemned prisoners. Since 17 December 2014 until 30 June 2015, at least 181 people, including 25 convicted terrorists, have been executed across the country.
In the United States, the legal practice of the death penalty has declined year by year, but, instead, the use of pilot-less planes (drones) in extrajudicial war on terror, has increased in frequency under the presidency of Barack Obama. The attacks with drones are often veiled in secrecy and they have extended to American citizens abroad suspected of un-American activities, citizens that at home who would have had a guarantee to a fair trial, even under the jurisdiction of a system antiquated enough to still include the death penalty among its laws.
Not only Put an End to the Death Penalty, but also to the Penalty until Death
The campaign of Hands Off Cain for the abolition of the death penalty in the world must also include the abolition of the penalty until death, the life sentence.
The fight against the life sentence is part of the fabric of the Radical Party’s struggle and it received a vote of support on 23 October 2014, when – in his address to the Delegates of the International Association of Penal Law – Pope Francis described the life sentence as “a death penalty in disguise,” which should be abolished just like the death penalty.
The issue of the life sentence will be the focus of the debate of Hands Off Cain’s next Congress, which will be held within one year at an Italian penitentiary with a high number of “lifers”, bringing together the highest concentration of inmates serving a life sentence with members of the Association.
Hands Off Cain’s project regarding the life sentence will be carried out on two levels.
The first, on the scientific level, is geared towards documenting the psycho-physical effects on inmates in sustained periods of isolation while awaiting the end of a never-ending sentence, similar to the already well-documented cases of those awaiting the death penalty (the so-called “death-row phenomenon”). As Pope Francis writes, “The lack of sensory stimuli, the total impossibility of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings induce mental and physical suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, weight loss, and significantly increase the suicidal tendency.”
The second, on the legal level, aims to present, with real cases, national appeals - at the Constitutional Court - and supranational - The European Court for Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations - all designed to end life sentencing, at least in its harshest aspects: the so-called “Life Without Parole” (of 1,576 condemned to life, 1,162 are condemned to life without parole, that is, they are excluded by law from any of the benefits reserved for other inmates) and solitary confinement under the Italian prison regime known as 41-bis (about 700 inmates). In July 2013, in the case of Vinter and Others vs. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) held that “whole life” sentences with no possibility of review and no prospect of release were inhuman and degrading treatment in breach of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights. In 2014, the ECHR delivered three more judgments in which it held to be a violation of Article 3 of the Convention the Life Without Parole provided in Turkey (Ocalan vs. Turkey 2) and Bulgaria (Harakchiev and Tolumov vs. Bulgaria) as well as the extradition to the United States where the defendant runs a real risk of being sentenced to Life Without Parole (Trabelsi vs. Belgium).