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.

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Iraqi Government Responds to Amnesty Report on Detentions

In response to our new report detailing the plight of about 30,000 Iraqis imprisoned without trial, Aljazeera spoke to Talib Alhamdani, of the Iraqi Council of Ministers; Malcolm Smart, Middle East and North Africa Program Director at Amnesty International, and David Pollock, Senior Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.  Watch Aljazeera’s Inside Iraq as the discussion unfolds:

Inside Iraq includes a clip from a press conference in which Dara Nourredine, Iraqi justice minister, said, “Gone are the days when prisoners are treated inhumanely.” This was in July of this year, after the transfer of Iraqi prisoners from Camp Cropper to the Iraqi authorities. “We no longer have any detainees in Iraq without proper warrant,” said Wijdan Salim, Iraq’s human rights minister. However Talib Alhamadani admitted during the interview with Aljazeera that prisoner abuse does take place.

Alhamdani told Aljazeera, “We need to change the culture of oppression.” He also said that the Iraqi government will study the report, investigate the allegations with the Justice Department and the Security Council, and hold the necessary trainings.

Make sure the Iraqi government follows through — urge them to immediately resolve the case of Walid Yunis Ahmad, who has been held without trial for over 10 years.

Immigrants Locked Away in Legal Limbo

New research shows immigrants, including asylum seekers fleeing torture and long-time lawful permanent residents, are being unjustly detained in the U.S. Tens of thousands of people sit locked up in a broken and cruel system of detention with no right to even a hearing to determine if their detention is warranted.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

A detained immigrant visits with his son and family members in a California detention center.

Many languish separated from their families, commingled with people serving criminal sentences, and sometimes denied access to attorneys, family members and adequate medical care. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) could issue new regulations that would quickly solve many of these problems. But instead, just three weeks ago, the office in charge of these policies testified before Congress that it plans to detain almost a hundred thousand more immigrants this year than last.

The new research outlined in the Amnesty International report released today, Jailed without Justice, shows that:

Lawful permanent residents, asylum seekers, and survivors of torture are being detained while they fight for protection
• US citizens and lawful permanent residents can be detained for years without any review of their custody
• Meaningful oversight and accountability for abuse or neglect in detention is almost nonexistent
• Individuals in detention often lack treatment for their medical needs and 74 people have died while in immigration detention over the past five years

Our findings are similar to what I’ve seen working in the immigration system for a decade. Before I joined Amnesty International’s staff, I represented immigrants and asylum seekers in San Francisco. I never met the first detained person whom I represented. He was a nineteen-year-old from Sierra Leone who had witnessed the murder of his father and neighbors. I will call him Joseph. The night of the massacre, he slipped into a cargo ship not knowing where he was going or how long he would be at sea. Joseph was discovered by the ship’s captain and turned over to immigration authorities upon arrival in the U.S. He was detained in Texas and applied for asylum without the help of an attorney. His case was denied. To be granted asylum, a person must show that he fears persecution on account of a protected ground: race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion. Joseph belonged to a particular tribe and his village was targeted for this reason. Under immigration law, a tribe is often considered either a race or nationality for purposes of asylum protection.

In detention, Joseph was unable to secure documents to support his claim and in representing himself, he did not know what was important to share with the immigration judge and government attorney. I learned of Joseph’s case through a pro bono program and agreed to write his appeal. In the appeal I asked that the case be reopened so that Joseph could submit documents supporting his claim. Joseph’s appeal was denied. The Board of Immigration Appeals thought Joseph had not provided evidence that he was persecuted on account of a protected ground. I believed this decision was wrong and advised Joseph to appeal, but he couldn’t face months or years more in detention with an uncertain outcome. He was deported.

In San Francisco I could meet my clients in jail, but communication was very difficult. Oftentimes they were despondent and we spent a lot of time talking about why it was worth it to continue fighting. Preparing a detained client for court was extremely difficult because often the client’s wrist was shackled to the table, there was very little privacy, and we had limited amount of time together. Securing documents could take an exceptionally long time.

When I joined Amnesty International, immigrants in detention were never far from my mind. As part of the research team assigned to look at immigrant detention, I went back to San Francisco to document detention practices in the Bay Area. It was disturbing to see that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) policies on detention had not improved, and in many instances, seemed more draconian. Detained immigrants still faced an indefinite number of months and years behind bars; securing affordable counsel was exceptionally hard; and immigrants were forced to wear prison jumpsuits, shackled to each other or a table when they were outside their cells, and their time was limited when spouses and children came to visit. It was heartbreaking and unnecessary.

Depriving people of their liberty without any right to a hearing is contrary to the constitution and American values. As the Supreme Court found in the Guantanamo cases, the constitution does not permit the U.S. to lock people up and throw away the key. Yet, that is exactly what is happening to tens of thousands of immigrants (and some US citizens) as they go through deportation proceedings in the U.S. The law must change to reflect international human rights standards and U.S. values.

Posted in USA

Capital Punishment Slowing Down

The Death Penalty Information Center has released its Year End Report (pdf) for 2008.  It reveals clearly that the trend towards growing skepticism and diminishing (and more regional) use of capital punishment is continuing.  There were 37 executions in 2008, the lowest total since 1994, and there were only 111 death sentences passed.  For the second straight year, this was the lowest number of death sentences since capital punishment was reinstated since 1976.  (In the peak year, 1999, there were 98 executions and 284 death sentences.)

Four men were exonerated for America’s death rows this year, increasing already substantial public doubts that an imperfect system can, or should, carry out such an irreversible punishment. 

Executions this year were also almost exclusively a Southern phenomenon.  Depending on your definition of The South – are Kentucky and/or Oklahoma “southern” states? – this region accounted for all but 2, or 4, or 5 executions in 2008.  But the dramatic decline in death sentences is taking place in the South just as it is everywhere else  in the U.S. (except at the Federal level, where death sentences have doubled since outgoing President Bush took office). 

As the report of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (pdf) revealed last week, death sentences in that notoriously execution-friendly state also dropped to a post-reinstatement low, with only 9 sentences recorded in 2008.  Of course, Texas continues to execute at an alarming rate (accounting for almost half the executions this year), but to a certain extent execution numbers are a reflection of where the death penalty stood 10 or 12 years ago (the average length of time it takes for a death sentence to be carried out).  In another decade, we may see execution numbers in Texas and the rest of the South dropping to the levels they are currently at everywhere else, which is almost zero.