Wednesday, 29 March 2006

China restricts organs from executions

China has banned the sale of body parts and introduced standards requiring written permission from organ donors.

The Sydney Morning Herald reports that new regulations also introduce improved medical standards for transplants and clinics.

It remains to be seen if the new regulations will be effective at stopping the widespread practice of removing organs from executed prisoners without their consent.

Some researchers have suggested as high as 90% of all organs transplanted in China come from the bodies of executed prisoners. There is an extremely low rate of organ donation in China, a result of traditional beliefs that the body should be kept intact after death.

There is also a flourishing market in "medical tourism", where people travel to China and pay to receive transplant organs.

Since 1993, human rights organisations have criticised the practice of harvesting organs from executed prisoners.

In 2004, Amnesty International said China's practices harvesting and marketing human organs from executed prisoners were a breach of guidelines and ethical standards of the World Health Organization, the international Transplantation Society and the World Medical Association.

The organisation cited reports that methods of execution in China varied according to which organs were to be harvested from a prisoner. "For example, if a prisoner's corneas are to be taken, a bullet is fired into the prisoner's neck or heart to avoid causing damage to the eyes," it said.

Human Rights Watch reported in 1994 that organs were often taken without having obtained the prisoner's prior consent.

Afghanistan: Freed Christian seeking asylum

Abdul Rahman, who faced a possible death sentence for converting to Christianity, may be granted asylum in another country following his release in Kabul. Italy is reportedly considering offering him asylum.

Rahman faced a possible charge of apostasy after he was arrested for converting about 16 years ago. Apostasy carries a death sentence under Sharia law.

He is in hiding in Kabul, after preachers at prayer services reportedly called for his execution. Other media reports have quoted Afghanis saying Rahman would be killed if he was released without charge. While he was in custody, a prison official told the Associated Press he was moved to a different prison after threats from other inmates.

The United Nations (UN) mission in Afghanistan said on Monday night that talks were underway to find a country that would grant Rahman asylum.

The UN issued a statement on 27 March confirming it was "working to find a solution in cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan".

"Mr. Abdul Rahman has asked for asylum outside Afghanistan. We expect that this will be provided by one of the countries interested in a peaceful solution to this case," it said.

Case dropped
Justice Minister Sarwar Danish told AFP that authorities had to order his release because of problems in the case and doubts over his mental state.

Under Afghan law there is also a limit of one month that a person can be held without charge while prosecutors assemble a case.

The New York Times reported that Abdul Wasei, the prosecutor in the case, said on Monday the time limit was "the main reason that the attorney general decided to release him".

Wasei told the paper the prosecution had completed its initial investigation on time. But the court sent the case back so prosecutors could address questions about Abdul Rahman's mental state and nationality, a delay which took them past the one month time limit.

Backlash expected
The Associated Press quoted Hamiddullah, a senior cleric in Kabul, as saying: "This is a betrayal of Islam and the entire Afghan nation by our government. This will have very dangerous consequences for the government. Muslim leaders will react very strongly."

On Monday, hundreds of Afghans demonstrated against delays in the case. According to an Associated Press report, about 700 people including Muslim clerics gathered in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif on Monday morning, demanding that Rahman be tried and executed.

The BBC reported “more than a thousand protesters took to the streets” in the protest.

Tensions, contradictions
The case has exposed tensions in Afghan politics as well as within the country’s 2004 Constitution.

President Hamid Karzai has been treading a fine line between his Western allies, who overthrew the previous Taliban government, and religious conservatives who still wield considerable influence in the country.

The case has also illustrated apparent contradictions in the Afghan constitution, which states that Afghanistan is an Islamic country and all laws must be consistent with Islam. Yet Article 7 of the Constitution also says that the country will abide by “international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

Afghanistan has signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which guarantees freedom of religion, including a person’s freedom to adopt a religion of their choice.

Tuesday, 28 March 2006

Conference - exonerated in California

Our readers in the USA might be interested in an upcoming conference: The Faces of Wrongful Conviction - A conference examining wrongful convictions and the administration of the death penalty in California.

It will be held on Friday April 7 - Sunday April 9, 2006, at UCLA Law School, Los Angeles, CA.

Conference organisers promise two full days of exciting seminars, a Friday night VIP event and a one-night only presentation of "The Exonerated". From the conference publicity:
The purpose of this conference is to illustrate both the problem of wrongful conviction and the unfair application of the death penalty in California and to mobilize for change. Since 1990, over 200 people have been wrongfully convicted and exonerated in California. This conference will facilitate the largest gathering of California's exonerees ever. In addition, new research discussing the causes and prevalence of wrongful conviction in California and demonstrating systemic racial and geographic disparities in the application of the death penalty in this state will be presented.
For more details, including the program, speakers and registration details, see:

Monday, 27 March 2006

Australian PM acts on Afghan death penalty case

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has spoken out against the possible death sentence for Abdul Rahman, the Christian facing possible charges for apostasy in Afghanistan.

This is the first time John Howard has publicly opposed the death penalty for a non-Australian.

On 24 March, John Howard told Melbourne radio station 3AW that he would make a personal protest to the President of Afghanistan. Press reports today said that Mr Howad had written to the President.

"When I saw the report about this I felt sick, literally," John Howard said on Friday.

"It was an appalling thing that we are fighting, we are putting the lives of Australian soldiers on the line and this sort of thing is allowed. I mean this is outrageous.

"The idea that a person could be punished because of their religious beliefs and the idea they might be executed is just beyond belief. So I am very unhappy about it," the Prime Minister said.

Australia currently has troops stationed in Afghanistan.

He said he would be writing to the President of Afghanistan to reinforce the objections already raised by Foreign Minister Alexander Downer.

"There can be no justification of any description for this," he said.

"I would have the same level of anger if the person were under threat because he became Jewish or Islamic or whatever. It's got nothing to do with the identity of the religion, it's the principle."

Thursday, 23 March 2006

Growing outrage at trial for Afghan Christian

[Please note: long post]

There is growing international concern at the possible death sentence facing an Afghan man who converted from Islam to Christianity 16 years ago.

Abdul Rahman, 41, has been charged with converting to Christianity, a crime under Sharia law.

A Supreme Court judge has reportedly said Abdul Rahman could be executed if he refused to return to Islam.

According to media reports, Abdul Rahman converted 16 years ago when he was working as an aid worker helping Afghan refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. Reports say he was accused of converting to Christianity by estranged members of his family during a custody dispute over his two children.

Australia's ABC TV quoted prosecutor Abdul Wasi as saying: "According to Article 130 of the constitution of the country, we ask the court to sentence the defendant to severe punishment, meaning the death penalty."

President 'won't intervene'
A number of press reports have suggested the Afghan government may be looking for a way out of a difficult international situation, but Afghan president Hamid Karzai has reportedly said he would not interfere in the case.

Khaleeq Ahmed, a spokesperson for the President, told the BBC: "The judicial system is an independent system.

"This is a case that the family of the person brought against him. We are watching it closely and Afghanistan also respects human rights."

The President would have to uphold a death sentence before it could be carried out.

International condemnation
A growing list of governments have condemned the charges, including from Western governments involved in the US-led military overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, and governments that still have troops in the country.

Many senior ministers have spoken out against the charges and possible execution, including from Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Australia.

An AFP report said US President George W. Bush found the case "deeply troubling".

"We have got influence in Afghanistan and we are going to use it," Mr Bush was quoted as saying.

"It is deeply troubling that a country we helped liberate would hold a person to account because they chose a particular religion over another."

Britain's Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells has been quoted as saying: "I am deeply troubled by the reports of this case. Individuals should be able to practice their faith or beliefs free from persecution.

"We take every opportunity to urge states to implement laws and practices which foster tolerance and mutual respect."

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement saying that he had called President Karzai to express his "deep concerns regarding the Rahman case and the issue of freedom of religion in Afghanistan".

"President Karzai listened to my concerns and we had a productive and informative exchange of views," the statement said.

"Upon the conclusion of the call, he assured me that respect for human and religious rights will be fully upheld in this case."

ABC TV Australia reported that its Foreign Minister Alexander Downer agreed that Australians would wonder why their troops were now fighting for a country which supports executing people because of their beliefs.

"Whatever the circumstances of this case, we don't want somebody to face execution full stop, but, secondly, we don't want someone to face execution just on the basis - or be punished - just for their religion," Alexander Downer said.

Human rights and religious belief
Amnesty International has called on the Afghan authorities to urgently commit themselves to judicial reform and to upholding international human rights standards.

The organisation has pointed out that the same article of the constitution used to bring the charges -- Article 130 -- also calls on the courts to rule "within the limits of the constitution".

Article 7 of the Constitution states that "the state shall abide by the UN Charter, international treaties, international conventions that Afghanistan has signed, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

These conventions include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which Afghanistan has signed. Under Article 18 of the ICCPR, "everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion", including the "freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice".

May be mentally unfit
Aljazeera reports that an Afghan state prosecutor has questioned Abdul Rahman's mental health and said he may not be fit to stand trial.

According to the report, prosecutor Sarinwal Zamari told The Associated Press: "We think he could be mad. He is not a normal person. He doesn't talk like a normal person."

It said Moayuddin Baluch, a religious adviser to Afghan president Hamid Karzai also said the accused would undergo a psychological examination.

"Doctors must examine him," he said. "If he is mentally unfit, definitely Islam has no claim to punish him. He must be forgiven. The case must be dropped."

Renewed debate on death penalty in Malaysia

The Malaysia Bar's resolution on the death penalty at the weekend has reignited debate about whether the country should move towards abolition, with a government minister supporting abolition and a leading newspaper questioning the death penalty for drug offences.

A report on the website quotes Malaysia's Justice Minister Nazri Bin Abdul Aziz as saying that he supports abolishing the death penalty.

"For me, a life is a life. No one has the right to take someone else's life, even if that person has taken another life," he is quoted as saying to a local newspaper.

The report says he was responding to the Malaysia Bar Council's call for abolition.

"I welcome this proposal. This is definitely something which should be looked into," he said.

But the minister said it would not be possible to impose a moratorium on executions. "The death sentence has been part of our laws for a long time. It goes with the fabric of the whole system. After discussions are held, hopefully the attorney general will advise the government."

The New Straits Times responded to the resolution with an Editorial noting "this country's continuing inclusion on the steadily diminishing list of nations with the death penalty".

The Editorial cited the decreasing number of countries that retain the death penalty, and the even smaller number which carry out executions each year.

"In the process, the death penalty has become tainted as an indicator of a certain social primitivism; an institutionalised savagery that does not speak well of a mature or advancing society."

The New Straits Times said a "strong case could be made for the death penalty for illegal firearms possession" since it had helped spare Malaysia the perils of civil war faced by "so many" other countries.

But it said "death for drug trafficking has done little to stanch the dadah [narcotics] scourge".

"Opponents of the death penalty tend to be few and far between in this country," the newspaper said, and their arguments for compassion, human rights and the sanctity of life "butt the hard heads of a polity preferring simple and straightforward solutions over delicate philosophical conundrums".

But the way forward may be to review the crimes carrying a mandatory death sentence or to restore judicial discretion "especially as regards the dadah-related offences that account for most executions here".

It said the "mandatory death sentence for dadah was a statement of national disgust, but it has had the effect of tying the system’s hands while doing little to solve the problem. It may therefore be too high a price to pay. Such is the cost-benefit analysis that should inform this debate – especially if the death penalty is to be regarded as a measure of a society's respect for life."

The Malay Mail conducted a 'street poll' following Justice Minister Nazri Aziz’s comments.

It quoted several people as supporting the death penalty for major crimes "as it serves as a deterrent". The newspaper said its poll "showed a consensus on this".

"Many feel that without the death penalty, the rate of serious crimes will soar," it said.

Tuesday, 21 March 2006

Malaysian lawyers against the death penalty

Malaysia's leading legal organisation has called for the abolition of the death penalty and a moratorium on all executions, according to a report in the New Straits Times.

A motion, passed at the annual general meeting of the Malaysia Bar on 18 March 2006, called for an end to the death penalty and for all death sentences to be commuted.

Amer Hamzah Arshad, a co-proposer of the motion, told the New Straits Times that lawyers often discussed the death penalty but this was the first time a motion like this had been put to the Bar's Annual Meeting.

"It came about because a few of us realised that lawyers as a collective body had not made a clear announcement on the matter," Amer said.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favour of abolition, with 105 votes in favour and only two against. A further 21 abstained.

"We will work with the Bar Council, non-governmental organisations and the authorities to realise this,” Amer said.

"The workings of the moratorium will be looked into in detail."

Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Bangladesh: Death penalty in draft terrorism law

The Bangladesh government is considering a new anti-terrorism law that would provide the death penalty for terrorism offences.

Bangladesh news service The New Nation reports that the Cabinet considered a draft of the anti-terrorism law at its meeting on Monday 13 March. The meeting agreed to form a Cabinet Committee to consider the draft in detail.

The draft law includes new provisions relating to involvement in, sponsoring or financing terrorist activities.

Following the Cabinet meeting, Law Minister Moudud Ahmed told journalists that the Cabinet Committee would review the draft law and submit a final draft within 30 days.

He said there would be varying punishments for terrorism offences.

"Death penalty would remain as the maximum punishment in the new law," he said.

Tuesday, 14 March 2006

China acknowledges death penalty abolition trend

A spokesperson for China's Supreme People's Court (SPC) has acknowledged the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty, but said the conditions were not right for abolition in China.

Spokesperson Sun Huapu reportedly made the comments during an online forum with users of the website and, the Chinese government's official web portal.

A Xinhua report on the forum was posted on the People's Daily Online and on

Xinhua said Sun Huapu "made it clear that China is among the more than half of the nations in the world that have insisted on the death penalty".

"It is a global trend that the controversial practice will be gradually reduced until it is abolished in the whole world, he said."

He reportedly said that China retains the death penalty because the country is still in its initial stage of socialism and a developing country, and because the public still believed in the principle that "a killer should pay the victim with his life".

He said the country had exerted strict control over the death penalty, ensuring that only a very small number of criminals committing extremely severe crimes were executed.

In fact, more than half of the world's countries have abolished the death penalty or are no longer carrying out executions in practice.

Chinese academics estimate that China executes as many as 8,000 people each year.

China to retain death penalty, with reforms

China's chief justice Xiao Yang has confirmed plans to reform the handling of capital cases, in a report to the 10th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

Xiao Yang, president of the Supreme People's Court (SPC), delivered his report on the work of the court to the full session of the Chinese legislature on 11 March.

According to a Xinhua report in the People's Daily Online, Xiao Yang said that all appeals in capital cases would soon be held in an open court.

"As of July 1, 2006, all the second-instance trials of death sentence cases shall be heard in open court," Xiao Yang said in his report.

Discussing the report in a fringe meeting on Sunday 12 March, Xiao Yang reportedly ruled out abolishing the death penalty but stressed it should be used cautiously.

Xiao's comments, during a panel discussion of deputies from North China's Shanxi Province, were quoted in a Xinhua report posted on the Chinese government's official portal,

"China's current policy regarding death penalty is to preserve it but use it cautiously," Xiao said. "There is no stipulation on doing away with death penalty in China's existing laws, and there has been no decision on whether death penalty will no longer be applicable to certain kinds of crimes," he said.

According to Xinhua, Xiao said "We must continue to follow the policy of being both strict and lenient according to the actual situation of the cases, and show leniency to the convicts who only committed minor offenses or merited milder punishment and even exemption of punishment."

He added that since the right to live is the "most important human right," the Supreme Court would continue to improve procedures for second instance trials and the examination and approval of cases involving death sentences.

Xinhua said earlier reports indicated that an NPC deputy had proposed removing the death penalty from certain crimes.

Jiang Bixin, an deputy from Central China's Hunan Province, and president of the Higher People's Court of Hunan Province, reportedly submitted a motion to the NPC session suggesting that death penalty be gradually phased out for economic crimes such as embezzlement and accepting bribes.

Monday, 6 March 2006

South Korea: Kim Dae-jung's call for abolition

Last week, we reported on moves to encourage abolition of the death penalty in South Korea, including a call from former President - and death row survivor - Kim Dae-jung. Here is the text of his appeal:

A Contribution to the Campaign of Amnesty International for the Abolition of Capital Punishment
February 20, 2006

It is the general trend in the 21st century to abolish capital punishment. Resolutions calling for the abolition of the death penalty have also repeatedly been brought up before the National Assembly in Korea.

Capital punishment goes against the foundation of democracy. Democracy regards the life of a human being to be the most cherished in the world, and to end a person’s life even in the name of law clearly runs counter to the basic principle of human rights.

In the case of capital punishment, there is no way to right the wrong after the execution has been carried out. We cannot completely rule out the possibility of a prosecutor or judge making a mis-judgement.

What is more worrisome is that there have been countless cases where dictators have misused the capital punishment to oppress and wipe out democratic advocates and political dissidents. This was what happened in the so-called People’s Revolution Party case in Korea when the participants were wrongfully accused and executed, and also when I was on the verge of being executed, being sentenced to death.

Pushing ahead with capital punishment does not lead to the reduction of crime, even when the criminal has committed a morally unforgivable crime. Rather, the capital punishment should be downgraded to life sentence so that the criminal can repent for his crime and become a new person.

Then, is this possible? Both good and evil exist in a person. A virtuous man can become a vicious man and vice versa, depending on his surroundings and his own efforts. We have witnessed countless times when a person who committed a heinous crime repents and turns over a new leaf.

During the five years of my presidential term, no capital punishment was carried out and in some cases the sentence was downgraded to life sentence. The reason was because capital punishment cannot be the true solution and it also goes against democracy and human rights. I dearly hope that capital punishment can be abolished to see the true completion of democracy not only in Korea but in the whole world.

Kim Dae-jung
Former President of the Republic of Korea
2000 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

Death for bag-snatchers

Bag-snatchers in China's Guangdong province may now face the death penalty, according to Amnesty International (AI).

AI said the Vice-President of the Guangdong High People's Court, Chen Huajie, announced on 28 February that the penalty for bag-snatching had been increased to a minimum prison sentence of three years, and can now include the death penalty. The ruling would apply to drive-by thieves who used violence.

AI urged the Supreme People's Court to immediately review the decision "with a view to overturning it". Mark Allison, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International said: "Extending the death penalty to cover more crimes goes against the international trend towards abolition."

The organisation said Chinese legal scholars had "voiced doubt over the decision". It quoted comments by Professor Dong Likun from Shenzhen University in Guangdong, a critic of miscarriages of justice under China's regular 'Strike Hard' campaigns against crime. Professor Dong Likun said in the South China Morning Post: "Can we really give the death sentence to a purse thief?"

Read Amnesty International's media release here.

Friday, 3 March 2006

Japan's death row hell

The Los Angeles Times has published a rare - and very revealing - glimpse into the harsh and cruel world of Japan’s death row, where prisoners can spend decades fearing the sound of footsteps outside their cell door. At any time, it can mark the sound of guards coming to take them to the gallows.

The story quotes a specialist at the Adult Correction Section of the Justice Ministry, who says this system is designed with the prisoners' welfare in mind. "We want to maintain the mental stability of those waiting for death. Emotionally, everybody wants them to face their last moments in peace."

The Japanese government goes to great length to shield its death penalty system from publicity and criticism, so this story is an important account of the country's death row.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

China's world record - 8,000 dead?

Academics in China estimate the country executes as many as 8,000 people each year. The figure, released this week by legal expert Liu Renwen, was based on information from local officials and judges. Liu Renwen has reportedly said he believes the figure is accurate.

The estimate provides a rare glimpse into the death toll of China's criminal justice system, where official information on widespread use of the death penalty remains a closely guarded secret. Statistics on the death penalty are regarded as a "state secret" in China and human rights groups have only been able to confirm a fraction of the estimated number of executions carried out each year.

By any estimate, China executes more people than the rest of the world combined, often after trials which do not conform to commonly accepted standards for a fair trial.

India's NewKerala newspaper quoted Liu Renwen as saying: "It is very stupid. How can we achieve useful reform (of the judicial system) if we don't even know the exact numbers (of executions)?"

Liu Renwen was quoted as saying the number of executions had dropped by 40 to 50 per cent since the introduction of a new criminal code in 1997.

Mr. Liu, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, also told reporters this week that local bureaucratic opposition was slowing efforts by the Supreme People's Court to take over hearing appeals in all death penalty cases.

Alarming execution rate in Iran

Amnesty International fears for the lives of a number of political prisoners in Iran following the execution of a political prisoner on 7 February. The organisation has also expressed outrage that Iran continues to sentence child offenders to death, a violation of its international human rights obligations.

Amnesty International said executions in Iran have been carried out at an "alarming rate", with 94 executions recorded in 2005. It said the true figure is likely to be much higher. In the first two months of 2006, it recorded a staggering 28 executions, the majority sentenced for crimes such as murder. They also included the execution of political prisoner, Hojjat Zamani, a member of the People's Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI), who was convicted of involvement in a 1988 bombing in Tehran in which 3 people died.

The organisation quoted unconfirmed reports that "a number of political and other prisoners who are under sentence of death have been told by prison officials that they would be executed if Iran should be referred to the UN Security Council over the resumption of its nuclear programme".

At least 18 child offenders have also been executed in Iran since 1990, at least 8 in 2005 alone. According to Amnesty International, the Iran Students Correspondents Asscociation (ISCA) reported comments from Ahmad Mozaffari, a Tehran Appeal Court judge, saying Iran would continue to sentence child offenders to death "without considering other options".

Iran is a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and it has given undertakings that it will not execute anyone for an offence committed when they were under the age of 18.