The Slow Decline Of The Death Penalty Continues

April 9, 2013

Abdullah al-Qahtani, a Saudi Arabian national, faces imminent execution in Iraq – a sentence based on “confessions” he says were false and obtained through torture.  His story is a perfect illustration of why the death penalty is the ultimate violation of human rights; how ceding to the state the power to kill prisoners is connected to unfair trials, torture, and other abuses.

As Amnesty International’s survey of the death penalty worldwide in 2012 reports, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are both among the top executioners in the world, along with China, Iran, and, yes, the United States. The U.S. was once again the 5th most prolific executioner in 2012, and its death penalty continued to be plagued with bias and error and misconduct by the state (as has been exposed in the Reggie Clemons case).

With 15 executions in 2012, Texas would have ranked 8th in the world, between Sudan and Afghanistan.

Amnesty’s new report highlights that, in most countries where people were sentenced to death or executed, those sentences were imposed after unfair trials. In some countries – Afghanistan, Belarus, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan – this included the use of torture or other ill-treatment to get confessions.

In some countries, people faced the death penalty for non-fatal crimes, including for drug-related crimes, for “adultery” and “sodomy” (Iran), for “blasphemy” (Pakistan), for “witchcraft” (Saudi Arabia), and for economic crimes (China).

In Yemen, at least two juvenile offenders were executed for crimes committed before they turned 18.

But, despite the preceding depressing paragraphs, the long term trends are mostly positive.

  • 21 countries carried out executions in 2012; back in 2003, there were 28.
  • 58 countries imposed death sentences in 2012, down from 63 in 2011.
  • 140 countries, or more than two thirds of the world’s states, are abolitionist in law or practice.
  • In December, 111 countries, or more than half the world, voted in favor of a U.N. resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions.
  • And while the U.S. did carry out 43 executions, the fifth most in the world, only 9 states put prisoners to death, and the U.S. was the only country in the Americas to execute.

And Maryland is set to become the 18th state to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. – though the fate of the 5 men on that state’s death row, and the status of promised funding for victims’ families remains up in the air, and for that reason more action is needed.

So while many very serious challenges remain, and injustices like that faced by Abdullah al-Qahtani will not become a thing of the past any time soon, it is a notable human rights achievement that more and more countries around the world, and gradually, more states in the U.S., are abandoning the death penalty.

Perhaps all our hard work for human rights is making a difference. Perhaps we are seeing the emergence of an understanding that, as Maryland’s Governor said when announcing his support for death penalty abolition in January of this year: “…we know that the way forward is always found through greater respect for the human dignity of all.”