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7th World Congress Against Death Penalty Opens in Brussels, Belgium

An estimated 1,500 government officials and representatives of non-governmental organizations from more than 140 countries gathered in Brussels, Belgium on February 26, 2019 for the opening of the Seventh World Congress Against the Death Penalty. The World Congress ­– organized by the Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty – is the world’s leading convocation on capital punishment. The four-day meeting formally opened on February 27 with a ceremony in the European Parliament in Brussels featuring remarks by European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister Didier Reynders, and video messages from United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and Pope Francis encouraging the delegates to strive for global abolition of the death penalty.

The opening of the Congress followed a high-level death-penalty panel discussion by the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland on February 26 focusing on human rights abuses in the application of capital punishment. Michelle Bachelet, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, introduced the panel by reiterating the international body’s long-held beliefs on capital punishment. “The UN opposes the use of the death penalty, everywhere, and in all circumstances,” Bachelet said. “Today, I am pleased to say, there is a clear international trend towards abolition.” The topic of human rights, discrimination, and the death penalty, she said “is particularly well chosen, because nowhere is discrimination more evident than when one looks at the people on death row – the people who society has decided are beyond rehabilitation and should be killed. … [D]eath rows are disproportionately populated by the poor and economically vulnerable; members of ethnic minorities; people with psycho-social or intellectual disabilities; foreign nationals; indigenous persons; and other marginalised members of society.” Speaking on behalf of the eight countries that sponsored the resolution calling for the panel debate, Minister Reynders expressed special concern about the use of the death penalty as punishment for peaceful expression of religious or political beliefs, blasphemy, same-sex relationships, and consensual sexual relations outside of marriage. “The application of the death penalty in these cases,” he said, “takes on a particularly discriminatory nature.”

In his video message to the Congress, Secretary-General Guterres said “[t]he death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” He called the record number of nations that sponsored last December’s UN General Assembly resolution for a global moratorium on the use of the death penalty evidence of progress, but said it was still “far from enough.” The death penalty, he said “is still employed despite its cruelty, despite the myth that it deters crime and despite the knowledge that innocent people have been – and may continue to be -- put to death.” The video message by Pope Francis (pictured) encouraged activism against the death penalty as a “courageous affirmation of the principle of the dignity of the human person.” The Pope called capital punishment a “serious violation of the right to life. … While it is true that human societies and communities have to often face very serious crimes that threaten the common good and the safety of people, it is not less true that today there are other means to atone for the damage caused,” Francis said. The Pope stressed that “the dignity of the person is not lost even if he has committed the worst of the crimes. … It’s in our hands to recognize the dignity of each person and to work so that more lives are not eliminated.”


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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. 


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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.


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