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protest against death penalty in Singapore

Attendees hold signs during a protest against the death penalty at Speakers' Corner in Singapore on April 3, 2022. (Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images)

UN Experts Say Abolishing Death Penalty 'Is the Only Viable Path'

"Despite more than 170 states having repealed the death penalty or adopted moratoriums, there was a reported 20% increase in the number of executions last year."

Jessica Corbett

A pair of United Nations experts joined people across the globe on Monday in marking the 20th World Day Against the Death Penalty by calling for an end to capital punishment.

"A growing trend of imposing the death penalty on those exercising their right to peaceful political protest is deeply worrying."

"Abolition of the death penalty is the only viable path," asserted Alice Edwards, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, and Morris Tidball-Binz, and the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions.

"The death row phenomenon has long been characterized as a form of inhuman treatment, as has the near total isolation of those convicted of capital crimes and often held in unlawful solitary confinement," said Edwards and Tidball-Binz in a joint statement.

The experts pointed out that "a number of states continue to impose the death penalty for nonviolent crimes such as blasphemy, adultery, and drug-related offenses, which fail the 'most serious crime' standard for the application of capital punishment under international law."

"A growing trend of imposing the death penalty on those exercising their right to peaceful political protest is deeply worrying," Edwards and Tidball-Binz noted. "Furthermore, increasingly methods of execution have been found to be incompatible with the obligations to refrain from torture and ill-treatment, for inflicting severe pain and suffering."

"Despite more than 170 states having repealed the death penalty or adopted moratoriums, there was a reported 20% increase in the number of executions last year," they continued. "States that retain the death penalty are urged to scrupulously apply exceptions for persons with intellectual disabilities, pregnant women, and children."

The pair also urged all countries to consider ratifying an optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that focuses on the abolition of the death penalty.

In a joint statement Monday to "firmly reiterate their unequivocal opposition to the death penalty at all times, in all places, and in all circumstances," the European Union and the Council of Europe praised Kazakhstan for having ratified that ICCPR protocol.

"We also commend Papua New Guinea, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea for having abolished the death penalty this year," the organizations said. They also called on Armenia and Azerbaijan to embrace Protocol 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights.

The statement continued:

The E.U. and the Council of Europe strongly condemn the death sentences recently issued in the occupied Ukrainian city of Donetsk. We stress that these sentences were incompatible with both European human rights law and international law, including the Geneva Conventions and welcome with relief the release of the sentenced individuals. Equally, we deplore the politically motivated amendment of the Criminal Code of Belarus—extending capital punishment to "attempted terrorist acts," with the eventual aim of targeting political dissents—and we urge the authorities to reverse this decision. We also call on Singapore, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other countries that have recently increased the number of executions to join the worldwide trend and abandon the use of this inhuman punishment.

Citing a May report from Amnesty International, Al Jazeera on Monday showed in a series of infographics that as of the end of 2021, 108 nations had abolished capital punishment for all crimes, and eight had ended it for crimes not committed during times of war.

Another 28 countries still officially had the death penalty but had not executed anyone in the past decade while 55 nations retained the policy and continued to kill people.

Like the U.N. experts, Al Jazeera also highlighted the 20% jump in executions last year. Specifically, at least 579 people were killed by 18 countries that used four methods: beheading, hanging, lethal injection, and shooting.

As the outlet noted:

Three countries accounted for 80% of all known executions in 2021: Iran (at least 314), Egypt (at least 83), and Saudi Arabia (65).

The recorded global totals do not include the thousands of executions that Amnesty International believes were carried out in China, where data on the death penalty are classified as a state secret.

Amnesty on Monday chose to focus on Saudi Arabia, pointing out that at least three young men "are at imminent risk of execution after an appeal court confirmed their sentences between June and October," after an official claimed in February that the kingdom had halted executions of individuals for "crimes committed by minors" and commuted all relevant death sentences.

Diana Semaan, Amnesty's acting deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, stressed that "sentencing people to death for crimes that occurred when they were under the age of 18 is a clear violation of international human rights law."

"The Saudi Arabian authorities have promised to end the use of the death penalty in such cases, yet the brutal reality is that these young men are facing an abbreviated existence," Semaan said. "The king should not ratify these death sentences and should immediately halt all imminent executions and order retrials that must be fully consistent with international fair trial standards, without recourse to the death penalty."

Meanwhile, the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy on Monday released a report revealing that "Bahraini courts have convicted and sentenced defendants to death following manifestly unfair trials, based solely or primarily on confessions allegedly coerced through torture and ill-treatment."

HRW deputy Middle East director Michael Page declared that "the many human rights violations that underlie these death sentences reflect not a justice system but a pattern of injustice."

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, an HRW consultant and primary author of the report, urged the country's king to "commute all death sentences immediately and the government should reinstate the de facto moratorium on executions."

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, advocacy director at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, called for action by the country's allies, saying that "in particular the U.S. and U.K. should take decisive steps to stand with these victims before it is too late."

U.S. President Joe Biden is also under pressure from rights groups and other death penalty opponents to make good on his campaign pledge to work on outlawing capital punishment across the United States. While his administration has instituted a moratorium on federal executions, they still occur at the state level; ending those killings would require action by Congress.


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