Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to KnowNovember 4, 2010 • By Brian Evans
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.
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.