April 27, 2007
Here is thy sting
More and more countries have doubts about the death penalty
HOURS after being sentenced to death by a sharia court in Somalia last May,
Omar Hussein was publicly executed. He was hooded, tied to a stake and
stabbed to death by the 16-year-old son of the man he had admitted stabbing
to death three months earlier.
In Kuwait, a Sri Lankan was executed last year by hanging, or so the
authorities thought. After the body was taken to the morgue, medical staff
saw he was still moving. He was finally pronounced dead only five hours
after the execution had begun. In Iran, a man and a woman were stoned to
death for extra-marital sex.
The horrors of cruelly administered, or botched, execution are not confined
to developing countries or to lands that follow the letter of hudud,
traditional Islamic punishment. In Florida last December, Angel Diaz was
executed by lethal injection. The three-drug cocktail that is used by 37
American states is supposed first to induce unconsciousness, then to
paralyse muscles and block breathing, and finally to stop the heart. But
after the first injection, Diaz continued to move, squint and grimace as he
tried to mouth words. A second dose was administered; only after 34 minutes
was he declared dead. A post mortem showed the first needle had plunged
through the intended vein, injecting the deadly chemicals into soft tissue
instead. Two days later Governor Jeb Bush suspended executions in the state
and set up a commission with a mandate to consider the humanity and
constitutionality of lethal injections.
According to Amnesty International'
figures are hard to get) 1,591 executions were carried out worldwide last
year, well down on the previous year, but nearly 40% higher than in 2003.
Yet Piers Bannister, the lobby group's death-penalty specialist, believes
that the world is gradually inching its way towards abolition.
That may sound wildly optimistic. But he says the important point is not the
number of executions, which fluctuates from year to year, but the number of
countries that carry out executions. This total has fallen steadily from 40
a decade ago to just 25 last year. Since 1985, 55 countries have ended the
death penalty or, having already limited it to "extraordinary" crimes (such
as those committed in wartime), have now banned it outright.
During the same period, only four states have reintroduced the death
penalty. Two of them, Nepal and the Philippines, have since abolished it
again; in the other two, the Gambia and Papua New Guinea, there have been no
Big swathes of the world have become execution-free: 89 countries have
abolished the death penalty for all crimes, another ten for all but
exceptional crimes, and a further 30 are abolitionist in practice, having
executed nobody for at least a decade. Louise Arbour, the UN High
Commissioner for Human Rights, has called for the complete abolition of the
death penalty. In Europe, where abolition of capital punishment is a
condition of membership of both the European Union and the 46-nation Council
of Europe (of which Russia is a member), Belarus is the only country that
still uses it. In Africa, only four countries carried out the death penalty
last year. And in the Americas, the United States is the only country to
have executed anybody since 2003. Only Asia and the Middle East seem largely
untouched by the global movement away from the death penalty.
Even China, the world's top executioner-
death sentences last year, though the real number may be nearer 8,000-might
be having second thoughts. Since January 1st all death sentences have had
first to be approved by the Supreme People's Court-a practice that had been
suspended after the launch of China's "strike hard" crackdown on crime in
2003, when publicly admitted executions soared to more than 7,000. In their
annual report to parliament last month, representatives of China's chief
legal bodies, including the Supreme People's Court, the public prosecutor's
office and the ministries for justice and the police, urged a reduction in
use of the death penalty (as well as torture).
At a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva last month, La Yifan,
a Chinese delegate, went quite a lot further; he said he was "confident"
that the application of the death penalty in China "will be finally
abolished"-though this may prove to be window-dressing in the run-up to next
year's Beijing Olympics.
The method used for execution in China is already changing, with a gradual
switch from firing squads to American-style injections. It was reported last
year that China had deployed a fleet of "death vans"-vehicles equipped with
the necessary equipment for lethal jabs-in order to make it easier for rural
communities to dispose of criminals.
Six countries-China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and the United
States-accounted for more than nine in ten of last year's known executions.
Kuwait, which put just ten people to death last year, had the highest number
of executions per head, followed by Iran. Iraq, where the death penalty was
suspended after the American invasion in 2003, showed the biggest
proportionate leap in executions, up from just three in 2005. Desertion from
the Iraqi army has been made punishable by death.
Methods of execution vary widely. Since 2000, the condemned have been put to
death by stoning (in Afghanistan and Iran), stabbing (in Somalia), beheading
(in Saudi Arabia and Iraq), electrocution (in the American states of
Virgina, South Carolina and Alabama), shooting (in China, Belarus, Somalia,
Taiwan, and other countries), hanging (in Egypt, Iran, Japan, Jordan,
Pakistan, Singapore and elsewhere), and lethal injection (in China,
Guatemala, the Philippines, Thailand and America).
Introduced in America in 1977 as a supposedly more humane alternative to
other forms of capital punishment, lethal injection is now the preferred
method in all but one of the 38 states that retain the death penalty. But
its reliability and painlessness are increasingly being questioned. Eleven
states have already suspended some or all of their executions while awaiting
the outcome of more than 40 legal challenges, based on the constitution'
ban on "cruel and unusual punishment". Given the number of contradictory
rulings by the courts, the matter is bound to end up, sooner or later, in
the Supreme Court.
This week, as two more convicts were executed by lethal injection (in Ohio
and Texas), a new report added fresh scientific evidence. An analysis of 41
executions by lethal injection in California and North Carolina since 1984
found that the three-drug cocktail can cause a slow and painful death from
suffocation while leaving victims conscious, but unable to move or cry out.
Furthermore, the last drug, designed to provoke massive cardiac arrest, does
not always succeed in doing so, according to the Public Library of Science
online journal, PLoS Medicine.
America is one of very few democracies (along with Japan, India, South Korea
and Taiwan) still to have the death penalty. Abolitionists have been
galvanised by findings that many innocent people-more than 120 since
1973-were wrongly sentenced to death. Now questions over America's most
popular method of execution are prompting some campaigners to ask,
hopefully, whether this could be the beginning of the end of capital
punishment. Some states, including New Jersey, Maryland, Montana and
Nebraska, are already moving towards an outright ban. And if injections are
outlawed, then a majority of Americans might prefer life imprisonment
without parole rather than returning to the electric chair, firing squad or
gas chamber. Indeed, there are opinion polls which suggest that half the
electorate already feels that way.
Source : The Economist