International

Fifty Years After Australia's Controversial Final Execution, Opposition to Death Penalty Is Strong

On February 3, Australia marked 50 years since its last execution. That execution—the hanging of Ronald Joseph Ryan on February 3, 1967 for the murder of a prison guard during an escape attempt—came at a time in which support for capital punishment in the country was already waning. The state of Victoria, where Ryan was executed, had not had an execution since 1951. Though certain crimes carried a mandatory death sentence, the state government cabinet had commuted 34 of the other 35 death sentences imposed in the intervening 16 years. The Australian High Court had overturned the one other death sentence. A man who served on Ryan's jury said none of the jurors believed he would actually be executed, and seven of them wrote to the cabinet in favor of clemency. The Melbourne Herald, a conservative-leaning newspaper, editorialized against the execution in January 1967, saying, "The state government's insistence on this final solution is causing the deepest revulsion. It is punishment in its most barbarous form. And experience has shown it gains nothing but dishonour for the community which inflicts it." Eight years later, Victoria abolished the death penalty, and every Australian state repealed it by 1985. Since that time, Australians have grown more opposed to the death penalty. According to the BBC, the most recent national poll, conducted in August 2009, found 23% of Australians support the death penalty and 64% oppose it. In 2010, the national government, in keeping with an international treaty, passed laws banning the reintroduction of capital punishment. The Australian giovenment has been active in calling for the global abolition of capital punishment. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company at the time of the 6th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Oslo, Norway in June 2016, Australia's Special Envoy for Human Rights, Philip Ruddock, described his efforts to persuade U.S. and Chinese officials to move away from capital punishment. "I believe when your friends suggest that maybe there's time for a change, you do start to think a bit more seriously about it," he said. "I think many Americans are embarrassed that they continue to have some states that maintain capital punishment." 

INTERNATIONAL: Human Rights Group, Reprieve Issues Report on Global Executions in 2016

Despite a sharp drop in executions, the United States ranked sixth among the world's executioners in 2016 behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, and Pakistan, according to a report by the British-based international human rights group, Reprieve. Maya Foa, a director of Reprieve, said "[i]t is alarming that countries with close links to the UK and [European Union] continue to occupy the ranks of the world's most prolific executioners in 2016." Questions of innocence, execution of juvenile offenders, and use of the death penalty for non-lethal drug offenses were among the top worldwide problems in the administration of the death penalty cited by Reprieve in the report. "[W]e have found children on death row, innocent people hanged, drugs offences dealt with as capital crimes, and torture used to extract false confessions," Foa said. "Countries that oppose executions must do more in 2017 to ensure that their overseas security assistance does not contribute to others states use of the death penalty.” Reprieve's analysis of global executions in 2016 found that China continues to carry out the most executions of any country, though the exact number is a state secret. Nearly half of the more than 500 prisoners executed in Iran were killed for committing drug offenses. In Saudi Arabia, those executed included juvenile offenders and political protestors. The ongoing armed conflict in Iraq made information on the country's executions difficult to obtain. Pakistan lifted a moratorium on executions in 2014, ostensibly in response to terrorism. But Reprieve found that 94% of those executed had nothing to do with terrorism. The Pakistan Supreme Court found in 2016 that two men who had been hanged were innocent. The Reprieve report also raised concerns about Egypt's high rate of death sentencing -- more than 1,800 people have been sentenced to death in that country in the last three years.

United Nations Overwhelmingly Adopts Resolution Calling for Global Moratorium on the Death Penalty

The United Nations General Assembly voted overwhelmingly on December 20 to adopt a resolution co-sponsored by 89 countries urging a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. 117 nations voted in support of the world body's sixth resolution on the subject, equaling the record number of countries who supported a UN moratorium resolution in 2014. 40 member nations, including the United States, voted against the measure, while 31 abstained. The resolution also called upon all countries to respect international standards providing for procedural safeguards for those facing the death penalty, to comply with their obligations on consular relations, to progressively restrict their use of capital punishment, and to make available data on how and against whom they apply the death penalty. This year's vote reflected some countries' recent changes on the issue, as Guinea and Nauru, which have recently abolished the death penalty in law, joined those voting in favor. Two countries that are abolitionist in practice, but not in law, Malawi and Swaziland, also voted in favor of the resolution for the first time. Despite its status as a retentionist country, the United States has seen a decline in the use of the death penalty, with death sentences and executions both reaching historic lows this year.

President Commutes All Death Sentences in Kenya

Kenya has commuted the death sentences of all 2,747 prisoners on the nation's death row. On October 24, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed orders sparing the lives of 2,655 men and 92 women who had been sentenced to death, commuting their sentences to terms of life in prison. While Kenya still authorizes the death penalty, it has not carried out an execution in nearly 30 years. In August 2009, former President Mwai Kibaki commuted the death sentences of the more than 4,000 prisoners who were then on Kenya's death row. One year later, Kenya's Court of Appeal ruled that the country's mandatory death penalty law was unconstitutional, overturning hundreds of death sentences. Muthoni Wanyeki, a regional director of Amnesty International, praised President Kenyatta's action, saying: “The decision to commute death sentences brings Kenya closer to the growing community of nations that have abolished this cruel and inhuman form of punishment. It must now be abolished for posterity.” Nearly two-thirds of the world's countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Among those countries that retain it, the 28 executions carried out in the United States in 2015 placed it fifth in the world behind only China (with more than 1,000 executions), Iran (977), Pakistan (326), and Saudi Arabia (158). 

United Nations Addresses Terrorism and Capital Punishment on World Day Against the Death Penalty

In an October 10 statement commemorating World Day Against the Death Penalty, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon (pictured) urged the global abolition of capital punishment and called the death penalty ineffective and counterproductive as an anti-terrorism tool. Saying that capital punishment not only "has no place in the 21st century," Secretary-General Ban also noted that executions of terror suspects have been counterproductive: "Experience has shown that putting terrorists to death serves as propaganda for their movements by creating perceived martyrs and making their macabre recruiting campaigns more effective." Ban said that, "[t]o be legitimate and effective, counter-terror measures, like all security operations, must be anchored in respect for human rights and the rule of law." In particular, he critiqued vague anti-terrorism laws that states have used as a pretext to target political dissidents: "Let us be clear: participation in peaceful protests and criticism of a government–whether in private, on the Internet, or in the media–are neither crimes nor terrorist acts. The threat or use of the death penalty in such cases is an egregious violation of human rights." At a conference in Geneva held in conjunction with the World Day Against the Death Penalty, UN human rights experts decried the swift and unfair trials and death verdicts often handed down in terrorism cases and emphasized the heightened need for rigorous legal safeguards in terrorism cases. "Executions carried out without adherence to the strictest guarantees of fair trial and due processes are unlawful and tantamount to an arbitrary execution,” three UN Special Rapporteurs said. “We have called on those governments once and again to halt such executions and to retrial the defendants in compliance with international standards."

Amnesty International Reports Concentrated Spikes in Executions Amidst Continuing Trend Towards Global Death Penalty Abolition

Amnesty International reported that worldwide executions spiked by 54% to at least 1,634—a 25-year high—in 2015, even as the number of countries abolishing the death penalty reached record levels. In its annual report on global developments in capital punishment, released on April 6, Amnesty said that the bulk of recorded executions were concentrated in just three outlier countries—Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. These countries accounted for 89% of all recorded executions. (Amnesty did not set a figure for executions in China, where data on capital punishment is considered a state secret. The report estimates that China executes "in the thousands" of prisoners each year and conducted more executions than any other country in 2015.) Pakistan conducted the highest number of executions (326) ever recorded in that country, as it resumed executions after a six-year moratorium, and Egypt and Somalia had significant increases in executions, although both executed fewer prisoners than did the United States. At the same time, 2015 saw the largest number of countries abolishing the death penalty in more than a decade, as four more countries (Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar, and Suriname) officially ended the practice. The total number of abolitionist countries rose to 102, with 140 countries having either abolished the death penalty altogether or not carried out any executions in more than a decade. The United States ranked fifth in the number of executions carried out last year, with executions also concentrated in a few high-use jurisdictions—just three states carried out 86% of executions, reflecting the same patterns seen globally in the use of the death penalty. The report emphasized the outlier status of the few nations that continue to perform executions, saying, "Today the majority of the world’s countries are fully abolitionist, and dozens more have not implemented death sentences for more than a decade, or have given clear indications that they are moving towards full abolition. The starkly opposing developments that mark 2015 underscore the extent to which the countries that use the death penalty are becoming the isolated minority." (Click image to enlarge.) 

BOOKS: "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty"

The recent book, 13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty, by Mario Marazziti, explores the United States' continuing use of the death penalty in a world community that is increasingly rejecting the practice. The Philadelphia Inquirer calls the book "an interesting, compelling look at the cultural and religious underpinnings of the death penalty and how we got here. More important, [Marazziti's] interviews with U.S. death-row inmates - living and now-deceased - their survivors, and their victims' families highlight the gray of a subject too many paint in black and white." Marazziti, who was deeply involved in the efforts that led the United Nations to call for a global moratorium on capital punishment, draws on his experiences as a co-founder of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and as spokesperson for the Community of Sant'Egidio, a progressive Catholic organization based in Rome. Pope Francis' appeal last month for Catholic government officials to work to halt all executions during the Church's Holy Year of Mercy came on the eve of an international conference against the death penalty organized by the Sant'Egidio Community. Marazziti's book includes research, personal narratives of those directly affected by the death penalty, and Marazziti's own reflections on the issue. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty by Mario Marazziti is a deeply moving and cogently argued account of why an abominable practice should be abolished. The death penalty dehumanizes those who use it. Its mistakes cannot be corrected." 

United Kingdom Marks 50th Anniversary of Death Penalty Abolition

On November 8, 1965, 50 years ago, the United Kingdom abolished capital punishment. On that date, Parliament transmitted to Queen Elizabeth II for royal assent the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act of 1965. The Act, which ended capital punishment in England, Wales, and Scotland subject to Parliamentary review after 5 years, took effect on November 9, 1965. When Parliament confirmed the Act in December 1969, the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom became permanent. The movement to end the death penalty in the U.K. was spurred by three controversial executions in the 1950s. In 1950, Timothy Evans was wrongfully executed for the murder of his wife and young child. His neighbor, John Christie, who testified against Evans, was later found guilty of six other murders and confessed to killing Evans' family. Evans was given a posthumous royal pardon in 1966. In 1953, Derek Bentley was executed for the murder of a police officer during a robbery, although the actual killer was a teenager who was ineligible for capital punishment and Bentley was at most an accomplice to the robbery. Bentley's conviction was posthumously overturned in 1998. Finally, in 1955, Ruth Ellis was executed for killing her abusive lover. Her execution drew widespread public outrage and more than 50,000 people signed petitions unsuccessfully seeking a reprieve for Ellis. 

Pages