International

Human Rights Group—Politically Motivated Use of Death Penalty Widens in Saudi Arabia

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher. 

The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use. 

ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.” 

ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran. 

Study: International Data Shows Declining Murder Rates After Abolition of Death Penalty

Nations that abolish the death penalty then tend to see their murder rates decline, according to a December 2018 report by the Abdorrahman Boroumand Center, a Washington, DC-based organization that promotes human rights and democracy in Iran. The report examined murder rates in 11 countries that have abolished capital punishment, finding that ten of those countries experienced a decline in murder rates in the decade following abolition. Countries were included if they met the following criteria: they had formally abolished the death penalty at least ten years ago, at least one death sentence had been imposed or carried out in the decade prior to abolition, and murder rate data was available from the World Trade Organization. The countries that met the study’s criteria were Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Poland, Serbia, Estonia, Latvia, Ukraine, South Africa, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, and Albania. (Click image to enlarge.)

The researchers compared murder rates in the ten years after abolition of the death penalty to the baseline rate in the year of abolition. Six of the abolitionist countries experienced murder rates below the baseline all ten years following abolition. Four countries had either one or two years in which murder rates were higher than in the year of abolition, but saw murders fall below the baseline within five years and experienced overall downward trends. Only one country in the study, Georgia, saw murder rates trend upwards in the decade following abolition. One decade after abolition, the murder rates in these countries declined by an average of six murders per 100,000 population. The authors conclude, “Death penalty advocates’ fears that the state relinquishing the ultimate punishment will embolden potential criminals, or at least weaken deterrence, prove to be unfounded in light of this evidence.”

The data is consistent with state-level data in the United States, which has repeatedly shown lower murder rates in states that do not have the death penalty than in states that do and that the presence or absence of the death penalty does not appear to affect murder trends. A 2017 DPIC analysis found that abolishing the death penalty had no measurable effect on murder rates in general or the rate at which police officers are killed, contradicting popular arguments that the death penalty is necessary for public safety and to protect law enforcement officials.

A Record 120 Nations Adopt UN Death-Penalty Moratorium Resolution

With the support of a record 120 nations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution on December 17, 2018 calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution expressed “deep concern” over the use of the death penalty and urged those countries that continue to use it to take action to ensure that death sentences are not the product of discriminatory or arbitrary laws or practices. The moratorium resolution, proposed this year by Brazil and co-sponsored by 83 nations, marked the seventh time since 2007 that the global body has formally called for an end to executions. When Italy sponsored the first resolution, it drew the support of 105 countries. This year, the recorded vote was 121-35 in favor, with 32 abstentions. However, Pakistan’s Foreign Office later said that its apparent vote in favor of the resolution had been miscounted.

The UN General Assembly last considered a moratorium resolution during its 2016 session. At that time, 117 countries voted in favor. Dominica, Libya, and Malaysia voted in favor of the resolution for the first time this year, and Antigua and Barbuda, Guyana, and South Sudan moved from opposition to abstention. According to Amnesty International, 139 of the 193 UN member states are abolitionist in law or in practice. Amnesty International Death Penalty Expert Chiara Sangiorgio said in a statement, “The fact that more countries than ever before have voted to end executions shows that global abolition of the death penalty is becoming an inevitable reality. A death penalty-free world is closer than ever.”

On the same day as the UN vote, Pope Francis met with a delegation from the International Commission Against the Death Penalty and reiterated his unequivocal opposition to the death penalty. In a statement prepared for the meeting, the Pope called the death penalty “a consequence of a mentality of the time – more legalistic than Christian – that sanctified the value of laws lacking in humanity and mercy.” He explained the recent revision of the Church’s catechism, saying, “The church could not remain in a neutral position in the face of today’s demands to reaffirm personal dignity.” He urged countries that continue to use the death penalty to adopt a moratorium, with the eventual goal of abolition.

Human Rights Day Marks 70th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

On December 10, 2018, the United Nations and other international organizations celebrated Human Rights Day, marking the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Declaration, which has served as a foundation for the UN’s efforts to abolish the death penalty, contains 30 articles stating universally applicable rights based on the “inherent dignity” and “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” Article 3 declares, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person,” and has provided the basis of UN treaties and resolutions against capital punishment, including the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, which, as of 2017, had been signed by 85 nations.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948, only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty. Today, 142 countries are abolitionist in law or practice. The Declaration was written in the wake of World War II and the Holocaust, and called for an end to torture, cruel punishments, and discrimination. It affirmed the rights to fair trials, asylum from persecution, and presumption of innocence. The Universal Declaration, along with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, comprise what has come to be known as the International Bill of Rights. Articles 6 and 7 of the ICCPR provide human rights safeguards against the improper use of capital punishment. Article 6 limits the circumstances in which the death penalty can be applied and provides: “Every human being has the inherent right to life. … No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Article 7 states: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

On the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration, a UN statement said, “Thanks to the Declaration, and States' commitments to its principles, the dignity of millions has been uplifted and the foundation for a more just world has been laid. While its promise is yet to be fully realized, the very fact that it has stood the test of time is testament to the enduring universality of its perennial values of equality, justice and human dignity.”

On World Day Against the Death Penalty, Malaysia Announces Abolition Plan, European Union Reaffirms Abolitionist Stance

Marking World Day Against the Death Penalty, the government of Malaysia on October 10, 2018 announced its intention to abolish capital punishment in the Muslim nation of 30 million people. A continent away, the Council of Europe and the European Union issued a joint declaration reaffirming Europe's "strong opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances." The European government organizations also urged their members to implement measures to prevent trade in goods that could be used to carry out executions. As worldwide abolitionist organizations marked the occasion to highlight the living conditions of prisoners on death row, Malaysian officials announced that the country plans to end its use of the death penalty in its entirety. "All death penalty will be abolished. Full stop," said Law Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong. He said the measure has been approved by the cabinet to be considered during the next Parliamentary session, which begins on October 15. Communications Minister Gobind Singh Deo told the Associated Press, "This is part of our election pledge and also in line with the move away from capital punishment in the rest of the world." Malaysia currently holds about 1,200 people on death row, and mandates capital punishment for crimes including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping, and terrorism. In their joint statement, the Council of Europe and the European Union called the death penalty "an affront to human dignity" that "constitutes cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment and is contrary to the right to life. The death penalty has no established deterrent effect and it makes judicial errors irreversible." A country must have abolished capital punishment as a condition of membership in the European government organizations, and the statement urged Belarus—the only European country that still uses the death penalty—to impose a moratorium on the death penalty "as a decisive step towards aligning the country with pan-European standards." The statement also called on member states to "continue taking effective measures to prevent their involvement, however indirect, in the use of the death penalty by third countries. .... In this context," the statement said, "the Council of Europe and the EU will continue promoting the 'Global Alliance to end trade in goods used for capital punishment and torture'." Europe's trade stance has directly affected executions in the United States, as European countries have blocked the export of lethal-injection drugs to the United States.

“Judged for More Than Her Crime”: New Report Examines Worldwide Use of Death Penalty Against Women

Women face “widespread discriminatory practices in the capital prosecution and detention” in death-penalty countries around the world, according to a new report by the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The report, Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty—released at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland on September 18, 2018—examines the use of capital punishment against women worldwide, including the crimes for which women are sentenced to death and the conditions of imprisonment they face on death row. At least 500 women are on death rows around the world, and the report estimates that more than 100 women have been executed in the last decade. The cases in which women are sentenced to death, the report states, are “emblematic of systemic failings in the application of capital punishment,” with death sentences often imposed on women who are illiterate, mentally ill, intellectually disabled, or members of marginalized ethnic groups. The report finds that women’s histories of gender-based violence are frequently ignored by attorneys and judges in those countries that retain the death penalty. In a statement accompanying release of the report, the Cornell Center wrote, “[f]emale survivors of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to unfair sentencing practices.” While the report notes that gender bias can operate in favor of more lenient sentencing for some women, that same gender bias results in harsher treatment of women who are seen as violating gender expectations. “[W]omen facing the death penalty have been cast as the ‘femme fatale,’ the ‘child murderer,’ or the ‘witch,’” the report says. In the foreword to the report, Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary, or Arbitrary Executions, writes that “[c]riminal justice processes, largely designed by and for men, frequently are not only blind to the causes and consequences of gender-based violence, they may actively reinforce gender-based discrimination.” The report, she says, “reveals that courts judge women not just for their alleged offenses, but also for what are perceived to be their moral failings as women: as ‘disloyal’ wives, ‘uncaring’ mothers, ‘ungrateful’ daughters. Nowhere are transgressions of the social norms of gender behavior punished more severely than in a capital trial.” The report also documents how women are uniquely affected by the harsh conditions on death rows around the world. In some countries, they must care for their infants or young children while shackled by the hands and feet. Female prisoners in Thailand and Myanmar have reportedly given birth alone in prison. Menstruating women are given little or no access to sanitary pads or other necessary products. Sandra Babcock, Faculty Director of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide, said: “Hundreds of women have been unjustly sentenced to death around the world, yet their cases have been neglected by activists, scholars, and the international community. We hope that this report will draw attention to their plight and inspire courts and policymakers to modify their sentencing practices.”

New UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Condemns Mass Death Sentences Imposed in Egypt

Incoming United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet (pictured), has condemned the mass trial of more than 700 protesters in a Cairo, Egypt, criminal court, in which 75 defendants were sentenced to death. The court also imposed life sentences on 47 others on September 8 and sentenced another 612 defendants to prison terms of 15, 10, or 5 years. The defendants faced charges ranging from “illegal gathering” to murder and attempted murder arising from their involvement in a 2013 protest against the military overthrow of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Nearly 900 demonstrators, most unarmed, were killed by security forces who broke up the protest, in what Human Rights Watch has called the largest killing of demonstrators in a single day in recent history. No one has been charged in those killings, which Human Rights Watch have called “likely crimes against humanity.” In her statement opening the 39th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 10, the High Commissioner said she was “shocked” by the death sentences, describing them as the product of “another mass trial which failed to comply with international standards regarding due process guarantees.” Bachelet said the mass trial “contrasts sharply with a recent law that bestows immunity on senior members of the security forces for human rights violations which they may have committed.” On September 9, in her first public speech as Human Rights High Commissioner, Bachelet warned that the death sentences, if carried out, would amount to “a gross and irreversible miscarriage of justice.” Amnesty International also condemned the trial, calling it “a grotesque parody of justice.” Its North Africa Campaigns Director, Najia Bounaim, issued a statement denouncing the proceedings as “disgraceful. ... The fact that not a single police officer has been brought to account for the killing of at least 900 people in the Rabaa and Nahda protests shows what a mockery of justice this trial was.” Bachelet said “[t]he conduct of the trial in the Cairo Criminal Court has been widely criticised, and rightly so. The 739 people were tried en masse, and were not permitted individual legal representation before the court. In addition, the accused were not given the right to present evidence in their defence, and the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to prove individual guilt. The evident disregard of basic rights of the accused places the guilt of all those convicted in serious doubt.” The High Commissioner expressed “hope that the Egyptian Court of Appeal will review this verdict and ensure that international standards of justice are respected by setting it aside.”

Cases in Sudan, Saudi Arabia Illustrate Use of Death Penalty Against Women to Enforce Gender Norms

In high-profile cases in Sudan and Saudi Arabia, human rights advocates are protesting the threatened use of the death penalty against women for resisting oppression. In the Sudan, prosecutors are seeking to reinstate the death sentence against Noura Hussein (pictured), a teen girl forced into marriage who killed her abusive husband as he tried to rape her. The Saudi Arabian government is seeking the death penalty against Israa al-Ghomgham, an activist who has sought equal rights for Shiite Muslims. The two cases illustrate a worldwide pattern in the use of capital punishment against women who defy cultural gender norms. Hussein, now 19 years old, was forced into marriage at age 16. She fled the marriage, but was tricked into returning by her own family. When she refused to have sex with her husband, he enlisted several cousins to hold her down while he raped her. When he attempted to rape her again the next day, she stabbed him to death. Hussein's family turned her in to the authorities, and she was tried and sentenced to death in May 2018. After an international campaign on her behalf, a Sudanese court reduced Hussein's conviction to manslaughter, sentenced her to five years imprisonment, and fined her. State prosecutors are appealing the decision and seek to have her death sentence reinstated. Yasmeen Hassan of the human rights group Equality Now called the Sudan "an extremely patriarchal place [where] gender norms are very strongly enforced." She said Sudan permits arranged marriages for girls as young as age 10, "there's legal guardianship of men over women, women are told you have to walk a straight and narrow line and don't transgress." Amnesty International spokesperson Seif Magango called the use of the death penalty against Hussein "an intolerable act of cruelty." Condemning a girl for "killing her rapist husband in self-defence," she said, demonstrates the "failure of the authorities to tackle child marriage, forced marriage and marital rape." Hussein's family has fled their home, fearing reprisal from the victim's family. The victim's father told a Sudanese newspaper that, even if Hussein is executed, they will still seek revenge, because she killed a man, and women are not equal to men. Saudi Arabia, known for its oppression of women, has recently begun a crackdown on women's right's activists. While the Kingdom has often used the death penalty against political dissidents, trying them in terrorism courts notorious for the denial of due process, Human Rights Watch reports that al-Ghomgham is the first female activist to face execution for her human rights-related work. “Any execution is appalling," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, "but seeking the death penalty for activists like Israa al-Ghomgham, who are not even accused of violent behavior, is monstrous.” The organization warned that the action sets a "dangerous precedent for other women activists currently behind bars."

The pattern of executing women who break gender expectations has been identified and examined by death-penalty researchers. Dr. Mary Atwell, author of three books on capital punishment, explained: "[F]or the state to put somebody to death in our name, we have to see them as ‘other’ in some way ... and I think that’s even more true with a woman. You have to see her as not just doing things that are violent and cruel, but as particularly outside the expectations of what a woman should do.” That is why, she says, in cases in the U.S. in which women are sentenced to death and executed, prosecutors and the press "played up to a great extent" that "these were women who stepped outside the norms of gendered expectations."

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