Saturday, 30 December 2006

Who stands where on the death penalty

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News website

The execution of Saddam Hussein has provoked mixed reactions around the world and focused attention on varying attitudes towards capital punishment."Saddam Hussein in court as the verdict was being read"

The European Union has used Saddam Hussein's trial and conviction to reiterate its deeply entrenched opposition to the death penalty. It led the way in calling for the former Iraqi leader not to go to the gallows.

However, while the EU maintained its firm position, some of its member-countries stepped out of line by applauding the death sentence when it was passed in November.

The Czech Republic's Prime Minister, Mirek Topolanek, welcomed it, describing it "an act of justice" and a warning to other dictators. Poland's President Lech Kaczynski described it as "the only possible outcome".

According to recent polls, the populations of both countries are supportive of capital punishment.

Poland abolished capital punishment in 1997, following a moratorium on executions imposed in 1988. But polls carried out a few years ago suggested that 70% of the population supported capital punishment.

EU clash

In the summer of 2006, Poland clashed with the EU after Mr Kaczynski called for a Europe-wide debate on capital punishment. He wanted the EU to either change its policy or allow the issue to be a matter for an individual country's legislation.

Turkey's Blue Mosque
Turkey abolished the death penalty under EU pressure

Abolition of the death penalty is a requirement for countries seeking EU membership - Turkey has recently abandoned it - and officials say that members that reintroduce it will be punished.

Most Western European countries abandoned the death penalty in the 1960s while Eastern European states did so in the 1990s.

Russia, a member of the Council of Europe, has yet to formally abolish the death penalty - although it has had a moratorium on capital punishment since 1990. Belarus has applied to become a member of the council but will have to abolish the death penalty before it can do so.

The US and Japanese governments - both of which exercise capital punishment - welcomed the former Iraqi leader's sentence when it was passed.

Japan executed four prisoners on 25 December, the first hangings in more than a year. At least 80 prisoners remain on death row.

The death penalty had been put on hold since September 2005 after the former justice minister refused to sign off any more executions, saying they went against his Buddhist beliefs.

The new justice minister, however, used the latest hangings as an opportunity to remind the world that more executions were to come and that the vast majority of the public were supporters of the death penalty.

According to official government statistics, some 80% of the country's population support capital punishment. Nonetheless, there is a small but increasingly vociferous abolitionist movement in the country.

Most executions

The US stands alongside China, Saudi Arabia and Iran as carrying out the greatest numbers of executions per year. According to Amnesty International 94% of the 2005 executions took place in those countries - with about 80% of those taking place in China.

Witnesses stand around an execution gurney
Polls show that US public support for the death penalty is decreasing
Although a majority of Americans back the death penalty, polls suggest public support is decreasing while the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole is gaining in popularity.

The number of people on death row in the US has continued to decline, falling to 3,344 by October 2006, according to the US Death Penalty Information Center. In its annual report, it says that the number of convicts on death began to fall in 2000 after 25 years of steady increases.

It also finds that executions dropped to their lowest in 10 years, with 53 carried out this year, 12% less than last year.

Challenges to the lethal injection process have resulted in executions being stayed in some states in 2006. They are currently suspended in Maryland, Florida and California.

About a dozen US states do not have the death penalty.

Chinese review

China is the world's leader in executions.

No one knows how many people are put to death in the country each year but Amnesty International estimates that in 2005, it carried out an estimated 1,770 executions and sentenced nearly 4,000 people to death.

This year, the government took steps to reform the process by restoring to the Supreme Court the right to review all death sentences.

The move followed a series of embarrassing miscarriages of justice. These were the result of the lower courts being given the right to approve the death sentence in the 1980s.

A new law comes into affect in January 2007.

Capital punishment has a long history in China, and there is no indication the country is ready to give it up.

Stoning controversy

Most Muslim countries retain capital punishment, with Iran and Saudi Arabia carrying out the most executions.

Still from Iraqi government video of criminals being hanged
Iraq's government has released video of criminals being hanged

Methods of execution in Islamic countries vary and can include beheading, firing squad, hanging and stoning.

In some countries public executions are carried out to heighten the element of deterrence.

In 2006 in Iran, a group of human rights defenders, mostly women, began a campaign to abolish stoning to death, after reports that a man and woman had been stoned to death in Mashhad, despite an official moratorium on such executions.

Amnesty maintains that the trend toward abolishing the death penalty continues to grow.

In 2006, the only country to abolish the death penalty was the Philippines, after overwhelming votes in both houses of its legislature.

That leaves 69 countries that retain and use the death penalty.

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