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26 June, 2013  ▪  Michael Binyon

The Guillotine Dilemma

While more and more countries abolish death penalty, most people in authoritarian countries still strongly support execution

Jerry Gibbons is a smiling, avuncular black former prison guard in America. And in the 25 years when he worked for the Department of Corrections in Virginia, he executed 62 people - 25 of them by strapping them to a trolley and administering lethal injections, and killing the other 37 with poison gas. He now believes that what he did was wrong. "What if one of them was innocent? I can't bring him back from the grave. I have to live with that for all my life," he told a press conference in Madrid last week. 

Sitting beside him was Tanya Ibar. Her husband has been on death row in a Florida prison for the past 19 years. And if her lengthy appeals, petitions and legal challenges finally fail, he too will be strapped down and injected with a cocktail of lethal drugs. "I hope I can be a voice for all those families who have loved ones on death row. We should not kill, so why are we killing?"

The two were joined by a Moroccan woman whose husband and son were killed by a terrorist bomber in Casablanca in 2003. After their deaths, she said, she was willing to kill the perpetrator with her own hands. But she realised that would not have brought them back. "I now want the killer to stay in prison all his life. Let him suffer there. But maybe one day he will also regret what he did."

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It is not only individuals now campaigning to halt legal executions everywhere in the world. France, Spain, Norway and Switzerland are leading an increasingly powerful global movement to abolish capital punishment, and last week their foreign ministers met in Madrid at the fifth World Congress Against the Death Penalty. Laurent Fabius, the French Foreign Minister, launched a new French initiative last October to lobby those countries - 58 in all - where the death penalty is still in force. He told the Madrid conference that capital punishment was not justice but a failure of justice. 

He was strongly supported by Ms Gry Larsen from Norway, who told the 1,000 delegates that she was especially proud of the fact that after the 2011 terrorist atrocity in Oslo when Anders Breivik killed 77 people, mostly children, nobody in Norway called for a restoration of the death penalty. She was warmly applauded.

The campaign by M Fabius was launched at the United Nations General Assembly in September, in conjunction with Benin. Nassirouy Arifari Bako, the Foreign Minister of that West African state, also attended the congress, along with ministers and officials from Tunisia, the Philippines and Burkino Faso - a powerful signal to the rest of the world that even poorer countries in Africa and Asia have now embraced the abolitionist cause. They spoke of the need for governments to take a moral stance on the issue and not wait for public opinion to change. In their countries, they admitted, most of people still strongly supported the execution of murderers and rapists. But once the death penalty was abolished, the change was generally accepted. 

The global campaign has strong opponents, however, and few of them were present in Madrid. Only a few democracies still keep the death penalty, including Japan, India and, most notoriously, the United States (although a growing number of American states have abolished capital punishment). Neither country sent diplomats to the congress. Nor were there any representatives from China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, which overwhelmingly account for the majority of the 676 people who were put to death by the state last year. 

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In Europe there is only one state, Belarus, that still maintains the death penalty. Russia keeps it for certain crimes on the statute books but has not executed anyone for several years (although there has been much press discussion of restoring the death penalty for terrorism). Throughout the world, 97 countries have abolished the death penalty in all circumstances. Eight others, including Kazakhstan, Brazil and much of Latin America, have abolished it only for common crimes, and a further 35 have implemented a moratorium on executions for at least 10 years, including most countries of West Africa.

But the rate of executions in countries still using this penalty has increased, especially in countries with authoritarian regimes. Iran, notoriously, still publicly hangs men convicted of homosexuality, and Uganda is even proposing a new law to hang any Aids-infected man found guilty of homosexual relations. Iran still authorises the stoning of women convicted of adultery, though has recently tried to hide this practice because of the global outcry. Saudi Arabia beheads criminals with a sword in public, including rapists, blashphemers and murderers. Indeed, after Asia, the Middle East is the region where capital punishment remains most common.

The only country from this region represented in Madrid was Iraq. Hassan al-Shimari, the Justice Minister, said it was obliged to keep capital punishment because of the continuing daily threat from terrorists. He also said that many pious Muslims supported capital punishment as this was mentioned in the Koran. But other speakers at the conference challenged the view that Islam approved of capital punishment, and several speakers from Arab countries insisted that human rights were universal and could not be divided according to religious beliefs.

The main argument used by abolitionists is that the death penalty verdict is often issued after an unfair trial. Too often it is discriminatory, or handed down for non-violent crimes or to individuals who were underage when the crime was committed. This was why Jerry Gibbons changed his mind. "Maybe some of these people I executed were given an unfair trial," he said. "And usually it's revenge - we are just trying to get even. It does not bring closure to a victim's family. When disasters happen, we don't get angry with God". He said he asked other prison officers in Virginia what they thought about the Saudi practice of beheading murderers. "They all said it was gross. But what is the difference? We are both bringing death to another person".

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His arguments, increasingly supported by lawyers, judges and the legal profession, are slowly winning over world opinion. More and more countries are ratifying the Second Optional Protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, part of the UN human rights legislation. Mongolia rafied it in January last year, and Latvia also abolished the death penalty that month. Honduras and the Dominican Republic ratified the Additional Protocol - banning the death penalty - of the American Convention concerning Human Rights in November 2011 and January 2012. And last year Connecticut became the 17th of America's 50 states to abolish capital punishment.

Of course most peace campaigners also support the abolitionist cause. Two Nobel peace prize winners - from Ireland and from Iran - were in Madrid, and Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican Archbishop of Johannesburg and peace prize winner in 1984 - sent a powerful video message urging all the delegates to spread the abolitionist message across the world. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, sent a similar video message. 

Raphael Chenuil-Hazan, the director general of the Paris-based World Congress against the Death Penalty, said that the laws of each country had to be considered in their cultural and political context. But more and more, he said, the world now agreed that no state has a legal right to take another person's life - whatever crime that individual had committed. It will be a long time before the majority in America or China agrees with that. 

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