Saturday, May 12, 2007

Here is thy sting

More and more countries have doubts about the death penalty

HOURS after being sentenced to death by a sharia court in Somalia last May, Omar Hussein was publicly executed. He was hooded, tied to a stake and stabbed to death by the 16-year-old son of the man he had admitted stabbing to death three months earlier.

In Kuwait, a Sri Lankan was executed last year by hanging, or so the authorities thought. After the body was taken to the morgue, medical staff saw he was still moving. He was finally pronounced dead only five hours after the execution had begun. In Iran, a man and a woman were stoned to death for extra-marital sex.

The horrors of cruelly administered, or botched, execution are not confined to developing countries or to lands that follow the letter of hudud, traditional Islamic punishment. In Florida last December, Angel Diaz was executed by lethal injection. The three-drug cocktail that is used by 37 American states is supposed first to induce unconsciousness, then to paralyse muscles and block breathing, and finally to stop the heart. But after the first injection, Diaz continued to move, squint and grimace as he tried to mouth words. A second dose was administered; only after 34 minutes was he declared dead. A post mortem showed the first needle had plunged through the intended vein, injecting the deadly chemicals into soft tissue instead. Two days later Governor Jeb Bush suspended executions in the state and set up a commission with a mandate to consider the humanity and constitutionality of lethal injections.
According to Amnesty International's latest report, "at least" (precise figures are hard to get) 1,591 executions were carried out worldwide last year, well down on the previous year, but nearly 40% higher than in 2003. Yet Piers Bannister, the lobby group's death-penalty specialist, believes that the world is gradually inching its way towards abolition.

That may sound wildly optimistic. But he says the important point is not the number of executions, which fluctuates from year to year, but the number of countries that carry out executions. This total has fallen steadily from 40 a decade ago to just 25 last year. Since 1985, 55 countries have ended the death penalty or, having already limited it to "extraordinary" crimes (such as those committed in wartime), have now banned it outright.

During the same period, only four states have reintroduced the death penalty. Two of them, Nepal and the Philippines, have since abolished it again; in the other two, the Gambia and Papua New Guinea, there have been no executions.

Big swathes of the world have become execution-free: 89 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, another ten for all but exceptional crimes, and a further 30 are abolitionist in practice, having executed nobody for at least a decade. Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for the complete abolition of the death penalty. In Europe, where abolition of capital punishment is a condition of membership of both the European Union and the 46-nation Council of Europe (of which Russia is a member), Belarus is the only country that still uses it. In Africa, only four countries carried out the death penalty last year. And in the Americas, the United States is the only country to have executed anybody since 2003. Only Asia and the Middle East seem largely untouched by the global movement away from the death penalty.

Even China, the world's top executioner—which reports carrying out 1,010 death sentences last year, though the real number may be nearer 8,000—might be having second thoughts. Since January 1st all death sentences have had first to be approved by the Supreme People's Court—a practice that had been suspended after the launch of China's "strike hard" crackdown on crime in 2003, when publicly admitted executions soared to more than 7,000. In their annual report to parliament last month, representatives of China's chief legal bodies, including the Supreme People's Court, the public prosecutor's office and the ministries for justice and the police, urged a reduction in use of the death penalty (as well as torture).

At a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, La Yifan, a Chinese delegate, went quite a lot further; he said he was "confident" that the application of the death penalty in China "will be finally abolished"—though this may prove to be window-dressing in the run-up to next year's Beijing Olympics.

The method used for execution in China is already changing, with a gradual switch from firing squads to American-style injections. It was reported last year that China had deployed a fleet of "death vans"—vehicles equipped with the necessary equipment for lethal jabs—in order to make it easier for rural communities to dispose of criminals.

Six countries—China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United States—accounted for more than nine in ten of last year's known executions. Kuwait, which put just ten people to death last year, had the highest number of executions per head, followed by Iran. Iraq, where the death penalty was suspended after the American invasion in 2003, showed the biggest proportionate leap in executions, up from just three in 2005. Desertion from the Iraqi army has been made punishable by death.

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