Cutting the rope

On October 10th, 2007, the World Day against the Death Penalty will focus on the proposed UN General Assembly resolution for a universal moratorium on executions.* Amnesty International is one of the key members of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The Death Penalty Team at Amnesty International is extremely busy these days lobbying for the moratorium to pass. Fortunately, the team coordinator, Piers Bannister, managed to find the time to answer some of my questions about the death penalty.

Piers Bannister is a researcher on the death penalty for Amnesty International. He has campaigned against capital punishment for over 20 years, publishing numerous documents. He has also seen the reality of the death penalty, having visited death rows in Jamaica, Trinidad and the USA and interviewed exonerated death row prisoners, prison guards who have carried out executions, and the mothers and fathers of those executed.

Vahdati: What was the turning point in the history of humanity to abolish the death penalty? Where and how the movement to oppose the death penalty started? And what was the first country that abolished the death penalty?

Bannister: I don’t think there was one single turning point in the battle against the death penalty but opposition to executions has always existed and is recorded in Roman and ancient Greek societies. Throughout the ages the movement has picked up momentum and in recent decades it has become clear that the abolition of the death penalty is an idea whose time has come.

There are now 101 countries which have abolished the death penalty in law and a further 32 have abolished in practice (in that they have not executed for many years and have clear policies of not doing so).

The first region to abolish the death penalty was Tuscany, in Italy, in 1786. The first country was Venezuela in 1863.

On average, 2 to 3 countries have abolished the death penalty per year for the last three decades.

Opposition to the death penalty has now reached such a point that the UN General Assembly will vote on a moratorium on executions this coming November. Although the resolution will not be binding, if passed it will send a strong message that a consensus now exists in the international community that the death penalty is unacceptable.

Currently, only around 25 countries per year carry out executions. Large swathes of the world are free from state killing. In the Americas, only the USA currently executes. In Africa, only six of the 53 nations carried out executions in 2006. Belarus is the only European country that executes. The majority of the world’s executions are carried out in Asia and the Middle East.

Vahdati: As the coordinator of the AI Death Penalty Team, how do you evaluate the record of the Islamic Republic of Iran with respect to the death penalty? Is Iran the only country that executes people by hanging in public, and has the media broadcast images of executions? Is it the only country that still executes people for crimes they committed under the age of 18, or practices stoning?

Banister: The Iranian record on executions is a matter of grave concern to Amnesty International.

Currently, only China carries out more executions than Iran. Iran is the only country that executes via hanging in public. The majority of executions are carried out after grossly unfair trials that fail to meet the minimum international standards universally agreed under international law.

Public executions are extremely rare, with only Iran and Saudi Arabia currently carrying out such killings. It is also the only country that carries out executions via stoning, although Saudi Arabia and the Sudan also have laws that allow stoning, to Amnesty International’s knowledge, no executions have taken place by this method for many years.

Tragically, having been the only country for a number of years that carries out the execution of those under 18 years of age at the time of the crime, Iran has now been joined by Yemen and Saudi Arabia, who both carried out such executions this year in violation of international law and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Vahdati: What do you think it might take for a country like Iran to abolish the death penalty? How could Iranian individuals play an active role in this effect?

Banister: There are a few courageous campaigners who oppose the death penalty in Iran but the campaign to see capital punishment ended is hampered by the lack of freedom of speech in the country.

Since the death penalty is a government policy, it is hard for individuals to speak out. This lack of debate causes many people to be ignorant of the truth behind the death penalty, including its lack of value as a deterrent to violent crime or its imposition against those persons innocent of any crime who have been wrongly convicted, to name just two examples.

Vahdati: Thank you very much for your time.


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