The Death Penalty In 2011: Three Things You Should Know

noose death penaltyEvery year around this time, Amnesty International releases its annual survey of capital punishment worldwide.

As in previous years, the report – Death Sentences and Execution 2011 – shows that support for executions continued to diminish, and that the U.S. is in the wrong company but moving in the right direction. There are three main takeaways from this years report.

1. Globally, the use of the death penalty remained in decline.  At the end of 2011 there were 140 countries considered abolitionist in law or practice (it’s now 141 with the addition of Mongolia), while only 20 countries were known to have put prisoners to death.  Only in the tumultuous Middle East was there an increase in executions.


Here We Go Again: Iran Condemns Yet Another "Spy"

Amir Hekmati iran prisoner

Amir Hekmati

By now I can write the script in my sleep: Foreign citizen (but usually Iranian in origin) picked up and slapped into detention; family told to be quiet about it and things will “go well”; implausible televised confession to acts of espionage or involvement in plot to undermine the Iranian government made by weary-looking defendant is aired on Iranian television; unfair trial in Revolutionary Court; harsh sentence handed down; media fire-storm ensues.

Yes, I have been ticking off each item on my check list again. The only “surprise” in the case of Iranian-American Amir Mirzaei Hekmati is the severity of the sentence.  The death sentence imposed on him is the first time that a U.S. citizen has been condemned to be executed in Iran since the Iranian Revolution took place 33 years ago.


Iran Resorts to Mass Executions to Deal with Its Drug Crisis

Arrest of drug offenders in Iran

Arrest of drug offenders in Iran.

Iran faces a drug abuse crisis of enormous proportions. It has an estimated 2 million or more addicts and users, remains the world’s largest market for opium, as well as other illegal drugs, and is a major conduit for drug trafficking from neighboring Afghanistan. Further compounding the problem is the high incidence of HIV/AIDS infections among intravenous drug users in Iran.

The Iranian government’s solution to the problem is predictably heavy-handed, as well as ineffectual: large-scale executions of those convicted of drug related offenses.

In recent years, Iran has enjoyed the dubious status of being the world’s “Number Two”—it executes the second highest number of people after China. But this year’s total of at least 600 executions and counting will vastly exceed even the numbers from the previous several years. And an astonishing 81% of those executed were convicted of drug offenses.


35 Years Of Death Penalty Regrets

Thirty-five years ago, on July 2, 1976, on the eve of massive bicentennial celebrations, the U.S. Supreme Court in Gregg v. Georgia voted 7-2 to re-instate capital punishment.  There had been no executions in the U.S. since 1967.

The U.S. could have been a leader in the subsequent worldwide trend toward death penalty abolition; instead the U.S. has become an outlier along with a minority of other countries (like China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia) that still kill prisoners.

What might have been?

Three of those 7 justices (Stevens, Blackmun and Powell) have since regretted their vote in Gregg, meaning that if there could be some sort of time-travel Stevens, Blackmun and Powell’s Excellent Adventure do-over, the death penalty might have never come back.

But, as with executing likely innocent people, you can’t go back in time to undo your mistakes. The death penalty did come back.


North Korean Prison Camps Grow Larger

By Jack Rendler, North Korea Country Specialist

Satellite image of Political Prison Camp 15, North Korea (aka Yodok)

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a prison camp in North Korea. ‘Guilt-by-association’ (with his parents) meant that he faced a lifetime of imprisonment. He was tortured along with his father. He was forced to watch the execution of his mother and his brother. He witnessed the deaths of many children under the impossible demands of forced labor.

On May 4, Amnesty International released a new report on prison camps in North Korea, accompanied by satellite images that reveal the scope and location of these facilities. Most are located in vast tracts of wilderness: isolated, remote, harsh. And, over the last ten years, they have grown.

Amnesty estimates that these camps hold at least 200,000 men, women and children (estimates by other human rights groups are much higher.) Untold numbers of innocent North Koreans have passed through and passed away in the camps since they were created 60 years ago. Most have no idea why they were arrested; they are held without charge or trial, without access to an independent judiciary.


EU Should Ban Trade Of Death Penalty Drugs To US

Lethal injectionLast October, Arizona executed Jeffrey Landrigan using sodium thiopental imported from England.  Other states also acquired this drug from the UK – but many of them (but not Arizona) have since had their supply confiscated by the DEA.

One of those states is Georgia which, in seeking to execute Troy Davis, is now scrambling to find an alternative drug.  Last Friday it appeared that they were close to a decision to replace sodium thiopental with pentobarbital.  This latter is rapidly becoming the drug of choice for our nation’s executioners, as Ohio, Oklahoma, Texas and Mississippi have all switched to it.

The company that makes the drug these four states are using, Lundbeck, is also based in Europe (Denmark), although the drug itself may be manufactured in the US.  The EU is supposed to have a ban on the trade in “tools of torture”, but a loophole allowed these exports of lethal injection drugs from the UK last fall, and this loophole clearly needs to be closed.  That is why Amnesty International is promoting a petition to José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, to ban the use of EU sourced drugs for US executions.

While these drugs should be banished from US execution chambers, Amnesty is not calling for an end to the manufacture or exporting of drugs which have legitimate and important medical uses; simply for the EU to insist that these drugs don’t end up being used for the opposite of their intended purpose – for killing instead of healing.

The Four Biggest Death Penalty Trends in 2010

Execution witness viewing room (c) Scott Langley

The Death Penalty Information Center released its Year End Report today.  While there were no major turning points for the U.S. death penalty in 2010, the unworkable and degrading nature of capital punishment continued to reveal itself throughout the year.  There were lots of executions early – the first three executions took place on the same day, January 7 – but the pace slowed considerably, and the last two months of the year saw only two executions total.  There were 46 executions in all, in twelve different states.  Here are four major themes that emerged in 2010.

1. TEXAS AND OHIO LEAD THE (WRONG) WAY:  Texas, as usual, led the way with 17 executions (though this was significantly down from last year), while Ohio put 8 men to death.  Ohio’s execution proliferation caused one judge, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul E. Pfeifer, who also happens to be one of the people who wrote Ohio’s death penalty law, to worry that his state was becoming too much like Texas, and to call for all death sentences in the state to get a second look.  He told the Columbus Dispatch: “There are probably few people in Ohio that are proud of the fact we are executing people at the same pace as Texas.”

No such second guessing was allowed in Texas, where a hearing looking into whether Cameron Todd Willingham might have been wrongfully executed and another hearing considering whether the danger of executing the innocent made Texas’ death penalty unconstitutional were both put on ice by state appeals courts. One or both of these important hearings could resume in 2011, but it is more likely that the Texas death penalty will continue to skate by without serious examination, despite the exonerations and wrongful executions we already know have happened.  (Silver lining: The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty reports that there were just 8 death sentences in the Lone Star State in 2010, the lowest since capital punishment was re-instated in 1976.)


37 Iraqis at risk of imminent execution

On December 16 Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said in an interview that Iraq will execute 37 people who have exhausted all legal remedies and their death sentences have been approved by the Presidential Council. He also said that Iraq has executed 257 people, including six women, since 2005. Last Monday Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said that 835 people are presently on death row in Iraq.

Amnesty International and the United Nations have repeatedly called on Iraq to abolish the death penalty, to give fair trials to prisoners, and to investigate allegations of torture. UN envoy Ad Melkert said on International Human Rights day, “We would like to reiterate our universal call to refrain from carrying out the death penalty and would encourage Iraq to consider banning this instrument as a fundamental feature of applying justice in a new Iraq.” Amnesty International considers the death penalty to be a violation of the right to life and the ultimate form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

Please write to the Iraqi government asking that the authorities not proceed with the executions of the 37 people currently reported to be at imminent risk, to commute all death sentences and to declare an immediate moratorium on executions.

Send letters immediately to the Iraqi embassy, 3421 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, D.C. 20007, and address letters to His Excellency Nuri Kamil al-Maliki Prime Minister, Convention Centre (Qasr al-Ma’aridh), Baghdad, Iraq. Copies should be sent to The Minister of Justice, Judge Dara Noureddin and Minister of Human Rights, Wajdan Mikhail Salam.

Or you can take action online right now to stop the execution of Samar Sa’ad ‘Abdullah.

Death Sentence of Convicted Sorcerer Rejected in Saudi Arabia

We welcome the news this week that the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia decided not to ratify the death sentence of a Lebanese man accused of “sorcery”.

The court decided that the death sentence for ‘Ali Hussain Sibat was inappropriate because there was no proof that others were harmed as a result of his actions. ‘Ali will now be retried in a lower court to consider commutation of his death sentence and his release and deportation to Lebanon.

The “sorcery” charges against ‘Ali Hussain Sibat relate to his former role as a presenter on the Lebanese satellite TV station Sheherazade, in which he gave advice and predictions about the future.

When ‘Ali visited Saudi Arabia in May 2008, the religious police arrested him and told him to write down what he did for a living, misleading him into believing that if he did so he would be allowed to go home after a few weeks. This document was presented in court as his “confession” and used by the court to convict him. They jailed him for more than a year before sentencing him to death in November 2009.

In January 2010, the Court of Appeal in Makkah accepted an appeal against his death sentence on the grounds that all the allegations against him had to be verified, and that if he was found to have committed the crime he should be given the opportunity to repent.

Despite this, on March 10 a court in Madina upheld his death sentence after the judges said he deserved to be sentenced to death because he had practiced “sorcery” publicly for several years before millions of viewers. His actions, they said, made him an “infidel” — a word that apparently carries legal weight in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The Court of Appeal in Makkah subsequently upheld the death sentence in April 2010 and referred the case to the Supreme Court, who subsequently ordered that the case be retried in the original lower court in Madina to consider commutation of his death sentence and his release and deportation to Lebanon.