Salil Shetty: Last year saw a staggering rise in global executions
Countries that still execute need to realize that they are on the wrong side of history, he says
Editor’s Note: Salil Shetty is secretary general of Amnesty International. The views expressed are his own.
Aftab Bahadur was 15 years old when a Pakistani court found him guilty of killing three people and sentenced him to death.
His sentence followed a farcical trial. Bahadur had always maintained his innocence and said he was tortured into a “confession.” His co-accused Ghulam Mustafa, who falsely implicated him during the trial, later retracted his statement, admitting that police had beaten him.
On June 10 of last year, after almost 24 agonizing years on death row, Bahadur drew his last breath as he was hanged in a jail in Lahore. He had been dragged to the gallows a handful of times before and saved at the last minute, but not this time.
“We start to count down (to our execution), which itself is painful and nerve-racking. In fact, we die many times before our death. In my personal experience, nothing is more dreadful than waiting to die,” he told media just months before his killing.
Bahadur was one of 326 people executed in Pakistan last year. The country lifted a moratorium on civilian executions in December 2014 after the horrific Taliban-led massacre at a school in Peshawar. The move was ostensibly to “tackle terrorism,” even though there is no evidence that the death penalty is more of a deterrent to crime than other forms of punishment.
The sheer number of people executed in Pakistan is staggering: 326 is the highest figure Amnesty International has ever recorded in the country in a single year since beginning to monitor executions there in 1980. Sadly, as we release our annual report on the death penalty worldwide on Wednesday, Pakistan is not the only source of troubling developments.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia also saw huge surges in the number of people put to death by the state. In Iran, at least 977 people were executed – an increase of more than 200 on the year before. The vast majority had been convicted of drug-related crimes. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, put at least 158 people to death. This is an incredible 76% rise on the year before, and the highest number we have recorded for the country since the early 1990s.
These three countries – Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia – were the main culprits behind an alarming and staggering rise in global executions last year. In total, at least 1,634 people were put to death around the world, the highest judicial death toll we have recorded in more than a quarter-century.
This global total, however, does not even include China, where Amnesty International believes thousands of people are put to death every year. But Chinese authorities treat death penalty statistics as state secrets, meaning that the true figure is impossible to determine.
As an organization that for decades has campaigned for an end to the death penalty, last year’s setbacks were as disturbing as they were dismaying. Apart from the number of lives taken, the use of the death penalty is in many countries riddled with serious problems: unfair trials, the use of torture to extract “confessions,” death sentences for juvenile offenders and a lack of transparency, to name a few.
But thankfully, 2015 was not all bad news. It was, in fact, in many ways a year of extremes, with stark developments on both ends of the spectrum. The 25 countries around the world that carried out executions belong to an isolated minority. In fact, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia accounted for almost 90% of all global executions (excluding China).
Last year, we also saw a record number of countries fully remove the death penalty from their legal books. Four states in total – Fiji, Madagascar, Republic of Congo and Suriname – abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2015, and a new penal code in Mongolia means it will also join the abolitionist ranks in 2016.
For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s countries now have legal frameworks that make no mention of the death penalty at all. In total, 140 of the world’s countries have fully abolished capital punishment in law or practice.
A historical perspective makes the long-term global trend away from the death penalty even starker. Although 25 countries executed last year, two decades ago, in 1996, that figure stood at 39. In 1945, when the United Nations was established, only eight countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today, this number stands at 102 countries, with more on the cusp of doing so.
Countries that still execute need to realize that they are on the wrong side of history and immediately impose moratoriums on the death penalty with a view to its eventual repeal.
The hundreds of people put to death in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in 2015 will never come back, but authorities in those countries can at least ensure that no more lives are lost in the name of “justice.”