As executions rise, the world turns against the death penalty

Yesterday, Amnesty International launched its annual global report on death sentences and executions. It’s a sobering read, as 2015 saw a dramatic increase in worldwide executions: at least 1,634 people in 25 countries were executed in 2015 – up more than 50 per cent from the previous year. That’s the highest increase recorded by Amnesty in the last 25 years. 

Almost 90 per cent of recorded executions in 2015 were carried out in just three countries – Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. China is still believed to execute more people than these three, but the country does not release official figures on capital punishment, and is therefore excluded from Amnesty’s number of recorded executions.

If there’s an upside in the numbers, it’s this: for the first time ever, the majority of the world’s countries – 102, to be precise - were abolitionist for all crimes, as the Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar and Suriname repealed the death penalty during the year.

Other countries also reported progress: Mongolia adopted a new Criminal Code in December, abolishing the death penalty for all crimes from 2016; the Governor of the US state of Pennsylvania established a moratorium on executions in February; China and Vietnam reduced the number of offences that can be punished by death, and Malaysia announced legislative reforms to review its mandatory death penalty laws. Burkina Faso, Guinea, Kenya and South Korea all considered abolition bills.

I’ve said many times the death penalty is barbaric, inhumane and should have no place in any society. Those are non-negotiable beliefs.

But even supporters of capital punishment cannot deny that it is often imposed under circumstances that are more than questionable. Amnesty notes that in many countries where people were sentenced to death or executed last year, the proceedings did not meet international fair trial standards. In some cases, this included the extraction of ‘confessions’ through torture or other ill-treatment, including in Bahrain, China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea and Saudi Arabia.

In quite a few countries, people continued to be sentenced to death and executed for offences such as drug-related crimes, as well as for committing “adultery”, economic crimes, or perceived violations of religious laws and principles. Equally worrying is that some countries still execute juvenile offenders or those with mental or intellectual disabilities. 

It doesn’t take much to understand how fraught with problems the death penalty is. Last year, I wrote about the case of Richard Glossip in the US state of Oklahoma, a man widely believed to be innocent of the crime he was sentenced to die for. Richard came within minutes of lethal injection, and is still facing an uphill battle proving his innocence against a criminal justice system that hates admitting error. More than 150 death-row inmates in the US have been exonerated and freed in the last decades, but many only after decades on death row, fighting unethical prosecutors, incompetent lawyers and politicians who presume the public wants them to pull the trigger or flip the switch.

I hope a new generation of political leaders will take a clear-eyed view of this problem. In the US, Virginia’s Governor Terry McAuliffe, may soon have an opportunity to do just that if he is called to consider the clemency petition of a prisoner called Ivan Teleguz

Ivan is also widely believed to be innocent and his case bears all the hallmarks of a broken system. Two of the three men whose testimony sent him to death row subsequently signed statements saying they lied in court, and the only evidence keeping him there is the word of the man who actually committed the murder for which Ivan is facing execution. This individual was offered a lighter sentence if he testified that Ivan hired him to commit the crime and has been told he will face a death sentence if he changes his testimony at any point. To make matters worse, in convincing jurors to impose the death sentence, the prosecution claimed Ivan was involved in a separate murder, which later turned out to be entirely made up. They even misled jurors into thinking Ivan could call in a hit on them from prison.

Ivan’s case, like Richard Glossip’s, exposes a troubling absurdity in the US capital punishment system: that the dice are loaded against defendants to the point that reasonable doubt of guilt or even proven innocence can be irrelevant. I hope Governor McAuliffe will challenge this surreal logic. 

I can’t say it often enough. It’s time to abolish the death penalty for good, in the US and around the world. Download Amnesty International’s Report

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