World public opinion has been so outraged by the continued use of the death penalty in the 25 countries that carried out executions last year, that a petition carrying five million signatures has been presented to the UN, where yesterday a small group of countries were attempting to block the historic vote on a global moratorium that could lead to an all-out ban.
The UN initiative is the brainchild of Italy, where the association Hands off Cain, campaigning for an end to the death penalty, convinced Prime Minister Romano Prodi to push for an end to the death sentence after the botched and humiliating hanging of the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein last year.
If last-minute "killer" amendments to a draft UN resolution do not scupper the initiative, the 192-nation UN human rights committee will begin voting on the measure today. If adopted, it will give a powerful moral boost to those campaigning for an end to the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
As of last night, the draft resolution had been sponsored by 85 states, including all 27 European Union nations. The United States, which executed 53 people last year, will vote against. So will China, which put 2,790 people to death last year. In fact 91 per cent of all death sentences carried out happen in six countries: China, the US, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq and Iran, where two men were publicly hanged for murder and robbery yesterday.
"The death penalty is abhorrent and a grave abuse of human rights," said Amnesty International's death penalty expert, Piers Bannister, who believes that a global moratorium is "long overdue". "In the overwhelming number of cases around the world a prisoner will be executed after receiving an unfair trial in violation of international laws and standards," he said. "Capital punishment is always cruel and unnecessary, it doesn't deter crime and runs the risk of executing the innocent."
At the UN, Singapore has led the charge against the draft resolution, which calls on all states still maintaining the death sentence to respect a moratorium "with a view to abolishing the death penalty". The text urges them to "progressively restrict the use of the death penalty" and calls upon the 130 states which have abolished the ultimate penalty not to reintroduce it.
Opponents of the measure object that the resolution would be an interference in domestic affairs, in contravention of the UN charter. At least 10 amendments to this effect were introduced last night by such states as Singapore, Egypt and Botswana. The sovereignty argument prevented a draft resolution from being voted on by the UN in the past. But to allow that argument to pass would "ignore the years of progress on human rights at the UN", said a European diplomat.
Some EU states baulked at another attempt to bring the moratorium proposal to the UN human rights committee. But the EU is now solidly behind the draft, and campaigners are hopeful that this time the measure will go through.
Sentenced to death
New evidence means that Kenneth Richey, 43, has recently been granted a retrial after more than 20 years on death row, following his convictions for arson and murder in 1987. Richey, who grew up in Edinburgh, has always protested his innocence.
Zheng Xiaoyu, former head of China's Food and Drug Administration, was executed on 10 July 2007, after being found guilty of corruption for taking bribes worth £425,000 to approve untested medicines. Zheng's appeal against the sentence was rejected.
Atefah Rajabi was hanged in northern Iran on 15 August 2004 for "acts incompatible with chastity" under sharia law. It is alleged that Atefah was mentally ill and did not have access to a lawyer. Her unnamed male co-defendant was sentenced to 100 lashes.
The former president of Iraq was hanged in Baghdad on 30 December 2006, for crimes against humanity. Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death after a year-long trial found him guilty of the killing of 148 Shias from the town ofDujail in the 1980s.
Du'a Khalil Aswad
Aswad, 17, from Kurdish Iraq, was stoned to death on or around 7 April 2007, as punishment for a relationship with a Muslim. She was stoned by relatives, with armed security force personnel in attendance.
Sentenced to death for the murder of seven family members and one policeman, farmer Manuel Martinez Coronado was the first Guatamalan to die by lethal injection when he was executed on 10 February 1999.
Sentenced to death in 1989 for the murder of a police officer, Davis came within 24 hours of execution in July but was granted a reprieve. The Georgia Supreme Court is considering a retrial, after nine prosecution witnesses recanted.
Mariette Sonjaleen Bosch, a 50-year-old mother of three, was hanged in Botswana on31 March 2001, convicted of murdering her close friend Maria Wolmarans. Bosch's family and lawyers were not told of her death until afterwards.
© 2007 The Independent