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Death Penalty Information

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Death Penalty: A failure of justice
A Failure of Justice

By Piers Bannister*
LONDON, Oct 10 (IPS) - A man is in court on trial for murder. He does not understand the language in which he is being tried. He has no defence lawyer. Because he does not know what is being said, he is unaware that he has been sentenced to death.

Some time goes by in prison. He speaks to his brother by phone and tells him that everything is all right and he is doing fine. A few hours later, he is led from his cell, taken to a public square and beheaded. It is not clear at what point he would have realised he was about to be executed.

This is not a fictional story, it happened to a Somalian man in Saudi Arabia in 2005. It is yet another example of the unacceptable use of the death penalty.

In the few countries that continue to execute people, the death penalty is arbitrary; used disproportionately against ethnic minorities or other disadvantaged sections of society. It is administered after unfair trials, inflicted upon the innocent, the mentally ill and child-offenders. In short, the manner in which the death penalty is deployed is a failure of justice.

However, some countries may prove hard to persuade that executions serve no useful purpose and actually damage any society that commits them. The governments of Singapore, China, the USA, Iran and many others are convinced that the death penalty controls crime.

Amnesty International vehemently denies this is true. Proof shows that the death penalty has no unique deterrent effect. Even if executions do prevent crime, even the most ardent supporter of the death penalty should be unhappy with the manner in which it is administered, assuming they are a supporter of fair trials, equality before the legal system and due process of law.

Every study of the systems that impose capital punishment in today’s world shows an appalling failure of justice and an unacceptable assault upon the legal rights of the individuals involved. The use of the death penalty is a political tool for politicians to appear to be addressing high crime rates or to instil fear in the populations they control.

As a high ranking politician in the USA once asked, “What will we use to control our populations if we don’t have the death penalty to scare them?”

After 16 years of working against the death penalty, I cannot name a single country where the standards of justice that impose capital punishment come close to meeting agreed up United Nations safeguards essential to the administration of justice.

The 23 countries that actively carried out executions in 2005 (it appears that the figure for 2006 will be very similar) did so in a manner contemptuous of justice.

In the United States, the evidence of the racial bias use of the death penalty is overwhelming, particularly when the race of the alleged victim is taken into account. African Americans and whites are the victim of homicide in almost equal numbers, yet since 1976, 80 per cent of those executed were convicted of the murder of a white person and only 14 per cent an African American.

Moreover, the number of wrongful convictions which are regularly overturned by U.S. courts proves that the justice system there is seriously flawed. Since 1973, 123 death row inmates have been exonerated before their sentences were carried out. A more frightening statistic, however, comes from the Northwestern School of Law, which has documented that 38 innocent people have been executed in the U.S. since 1973.

In Pakistan, whether the defendant lives or dies may depend on the wealth and influence of his family. Under the system of “blood money,” the family of the murderer can pay compensation to the family of the victim in lieu of execution. The murderer then walks free. The rich get away with murder, the poor die.

In China, many are executed after confessing to crime while being subjected to torture. Teng Xingshan was executed after “confessing” to the murder of his wife, a statement he later retracted claiming he had been beaten by police officers. Nevertheless the authorities continued with his execution and he was put to death in 1987. Sixteen years later she reappeared alive and well.

In Jordan, many have been executed after being convicted on the basis of a confession extracted under torture. One man was hanged in 2000 for a 1995 murder. In 2005, the authorities sentenced another man to death for the same killing after an unrelated trial.

Iran is one of only two countries which execute those under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. This is in violation of international law. In 2004, for instance, a 16-year-old girl, Ateqeh Rajabi, believed to be mentally ill, was publicly hanged in the northern Iranian province of Mazandaran for "acts incompatible with chastity."
Her co-defendant, an unnamed man, was reportedly sentenced to 100 lashes. He was released after this sentence was carried out.

Indeed, because of these potential mistakes and abuses, rational, humane governments choose not to use the old eye-for-an-eye form of justice. Worldwide, the use of the death penalty is becoming increasingly rare; 129 countries no longer use capital punishment in law or practice and in 2005, a mere 23 countries carried out executions. The movement towards a world without capital punishment is relentless.

It is an indefensible act to take a defenceless prisoner and in the most cold-blooded manner possible kill him. The individual is no longer a threat to society because he is incarcerated yet the authorities decide the time, place and method by which he is to die.

The world is learning that the death penalty is a barbaric act that debases any society that uses it. As a crime control measure it is ineffective. Indeed, many of the countries that use capital punishment suffer higher rates of violence than many other non-executing nations.

Many politicians have provided human rights leadership by abolishing capital punishment. Sadly, many more lack this courage and the phrase “we are not ready to abandon the death penalty” is too often heard.

*Piers is a researcher on the death penalty at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat.
The views expressed in these pages are those of individual AI campaigners or researchers, and do not necessarily reflect official AI policy.