Georgia: Execution Info Could Inspire Terroristic Acts

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The nexus between human rights violations and government secrecy is well-known. The abuse of human beings thrives where there is no oversight or accountability. And the promiscuous use of words like “national security” or “terrorism” to justify secrecy is also well documented.

So maybe it’s no surprise that the state of Georgia, in refusing to turn over mundane information on its lethal injection procedures, has made the outlandish claim that such disclosure could “compromise security against sabotage, criminal or terroristic acts.”  A few months back, a similarly absurd claim was made in Texas, but thankfully, and to his credit, this nonsense was overruled by the Texas Attorney General. Georgia’s ridiculous position here should also be overruled.

Other states and countries have also tried to conceal execution information, but for a democracy to function, citizens have to be able to keep track of what their government is up to. It should go without saying that, of all things, the state’s killing of prisoners must be subject to public scrutiny.

Emanuel Hammond is scheduled for execution on January 25, and his lawyers have been trying, since November, to get information about the drugs that will be used to put him to death. The state’s refusal to comply, and its over-the-top reason for refusing, is an insult to the public’s right to know what is being done in their name.

Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to Know

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Sakineh Ashtiani is at risk of execution in Iran. Last month, her lawyer and her son were arrested, apparently for discussing her case with foreign nationals.  Her other lawyer, prominent human rights and death penalty defense lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, was hounded into exile over the summer when he refused to be silenced.

Alan Shadrake is due to be sentenced next Tuesday 9 November © Alan Shadrake

In Singapore, Alan Shadrake is now a convicted criminal because he wrote a book about capital punishment in that country.  He could be sent to prison next week.

While these episodes may be extreme, the same efforts to suppress information about the death penalty are at work here in the USA where, for instance, a state law in Missouri makes it a crime – even for journalists – to reveal the identities of those who participate in executions.

It’s the same principle of secrecy that allows Arizona and California to continue to conceal the source of their execution drugs, or for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to call for such information to be classified as a “state secret.”  The claim that such secrecy is necessary to protect executioners from harassment is incredibly weak.  Other government agencies and employees (for example, the guy at the DMV who makes you wait in line, or the city employee who gives you parking tickets) don’t benefit from such undemocratic anonymity.  The public has a fundamental right to know what a state agency is doing with their tax dollars, especially when that agency is engaged in the ultimate act of state power – the killing of a human being.

Most of us would agree (I hope) that lawyers should not be detained for publicizing their client’s case, and that no one should be punished for writing about a country’s death penalty (although that could happen under Missouri’s law).  When government is exercising its greatest power, that’s when we should demand the greatest transparency.  This is essential to ensuring accountability and preventing that power from being abused.

Instead, we are seeing, both globally and here in the USA, a disturbing trend towards imposing greater secrecy on the executions that are carried out in our name.