Friday, 23 April 2021

China, Middle East dominate 2020 list of top executioners: Report

Source: Al Jazeera (21 April 2021)

While the year 2020 witnessed an overall decline in the number of global death penalties, some countries increased the number of executions they carried out.

In its annual global review of the death penalty, Amnesty International said that the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus pandemic contributed to a trend of decline in global executions between January and December 2020. But authorities in 18 countries continued executing last year.

Amnesty relied on official figures, judgements, media reports and information from families, individuals and civil societies to collate data for its report titled Death Sentences and Executions in 2020.

Commenting on the findings, Agnes Callamard, the secretary-general of Amnesty International, said in a statement: “As the world focused on finding ways to protect lives from COVID-19, several governments showed a disturbing determination to resort to the death penalty and execute people no matter what.”

“The death penalty is an abhorrent punishment and pursuing executions in the middle of a pandemic further highlights its inherent cruelty,” Callamard said, adding that many people on death row were unable to access in-person legal representation under these conditions, which is considered “a particularly egregious assault on human rights”.

Although the figures in the report provided an overall reflection of the global breakdown of executions in 2020, they were on the lower end of estimates for many countries.

Data on the use of the death penalty is classified information in some countries, including China and Vietnam, whereas in countries like Laos and North Korea, little or no information is available due to restrictive state practices.

Top six executing countries

China is believed to be “the world’s most prolific executioner”, executing thousands of people each year, said the report.

But with Chinese authorities classifying the total number of death sentences and executions as state secrets, it is difficult to verify the exact number carried out.

After China, four Middle Eastern countries – Iran, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia – accounted for 88 percent of all known executions in 2020, said the report.

Iran came in as the second-highest global executioner with more than 246 executions carried out between January and December 2020.

Among those executed was journalist Ruhollah Zam, who was hung on December 12. He was once-exiled over his online work that helped inspire nationwide economic protests in 2017.

Coming in third was Egypt, which at 107 executions, tripled the number of yearly executions in 2020 compared with the year before.

The 2020 toll was the highest since the number of executions peaked in 2013, following the military overthrow in July 2013 of Egypt’s first democratically elected President Mohamed Morsi. At least 109 executions were carried out in 2013, according to Amnesty.

Dozens of those executions were related to political violence. Many of the trials were marred by serious human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances, said the report.

The spike in executions in Egypt occurred between October and November when the government executed 57 people, including four women. Several human rights organisations decried the executions.

In fourth place, Iraq executed more than 45 people last year. That total was still less than half the number of executions carried out by the Iraqi authorities in 2019, said the report.

Several of those cases involved prisoners in terrorism-related crimes, who according to the United Nations human rights experts, faced trials that were unjust.

With at least 27 executions, Saudi Arabia was considered the fifth top global executioner in 2020, according to the report.

Despite this, the number of recorded executions in Saudi Arabia fell by 85 percent from 184 in 2019.

Criticism of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record has grown since King Salman named his son Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) as crown prince and heir to the throne in June 2017 and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered inside the Saudi consulate in the Turkish city of Istanbul in October 2018.

In a huge setback, the US became the only country in the Americas to carry out executions in 2020 after the Trump administration carried out the first federal execution in 17 years in July 2020.

And yet, in 2020, the US reached its lowest figure of executions in almost 30 years.

International law violations

Additionally, Amnesty recorded several executions that violated international law including one public execution and three people executed for crimes that occurred below the age of 18 in Iran.

In violation of international law, people with mental or intellectual disabilities were also put to death in countries including the US, Japan, the Maldives and Pakistan, said the report.

Meanwhile, many counties are believed to have imposed death sentences following proceedings that did not meet international standards for fair trials in Bahrain, Bangladesh, Egypt and Singapore among others.

In China, Iran and Saudi Arabia at least 30 executions were linked to drug-related offences.

Lowest in decade

The total number of known global executions in 2020 was at least 483, said the report, which marked the lowest number of executions recorded by Amnesty in at least 10 years.

The figure represented a 26-percent decrease in the number of executions compared with 2019 and a 70-percent fall from 1,634 global executions in 2015. This drop was primarily linked to reductions in Iraq and Saudi Arabia, according to the report.

Furthermore, the number of known executing countries fell from 20 in 2019 to 18 in 2020.

At the same time, at 1,477 the report recorded a 36-percent decline in newly imposed death sentences in 2020 globally, compared with the previous year. According to the report, this decline was partly due to the coronavirus pandemic disrupting and delayed criminal proceedings globally.

No executions were recorded in several countries that executed people in the previous two years, including Afghanistan, Belarus, Japan, Singapore and Sudan.

Abolishing death penalty

Meanwhile, the US state of Colorado and Chad abolished the death penalty in 2020, which as of April 2021, brought the number of countries to have abolished the death penalty for all crimes to 108.

With Kazakhstan committing to abolish the death penalty and Barbados concluding reforms to repeal the mandatory death penalty, the number of countries that abolished it in law or practice reached 144.

“Despite the continued pursuit of the death penalty by some governments, the overall picture in 2020 was positive,” said Callamard.

“We urge leaders in all countries that have not yet repealed this punishment to make 2021 the year that they end state-sanctioned killings for good,” she added.

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

Lame Duck Executioners

When historians look back and evaluate the Trump presidency, one focus will be the instigation of the federal death penalty. Until the execution of Daniel Lee Lewis on Jan 14, 2020, no federal prisoner had been executed in 17 years. The execution of Lisa Montgomery was even more extreme - no woman had been put to death by the federal government in 67 years, the last one being in 1953.

 A Political Punishment

Apart from restarting federal executions, another quagmire was Trump's insistence on carrying out executions even after election defeat. Whether one supports or opposes the death penalty, both sides can likely agree that it is a political issue. And political issues can bring political rewards. In the United States, prosecutors gain accolades when a sentence of death is pronounced. And then a second time - in the not so usual instance - if the accused is put to death.

Politicians often have much to gain. Preaching that law and order is necessary, and that the death penalty keeps our communities safe, brings donations and votes. Judges who oppose the death penalty draw the wrath of police organizations, and can end up as grass by the wayside.

 The Jilted and the Defeated

Jilted lovers and defeated politicians share similar mindsets. Like Monday morning quarterbacks, 'what did I do wrong, what could I have done better', are questions which dog the mind. Those who lose in love and politics often indulge in drastic actions. And this phenomenon is hardly indigenous to the United States.

In September 2009, The Democratic Party of Japan, an opposition party, took control of the Japanese parliament. It was only the second time in postwar history that the stalwart conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) was sidelined. Human rights activists and progressives celebrated the victory. In particular, they welcomed the appointment of (Ms) Keiko Chiba, a practicing attorney, as Justice Minister. Chiba had a firm record of supporting human rights, actively opposed the death penalty, and was a member of a non-partisan abolitionist caucus within the parliament.

Death penalty abolitionists in Japan breathed a sigh of relief. From December 2006 until January 2009 - a period of 25 months - Japan had hung 32 prisoners. The country disposed of nearly one third of its death row. By comparison, the US as a whole would have had to carry out more than 700 executions to keep pace.

On July 11, 2010, ten months after assuming office, Chiba, who had served in parliament off and on since 1996, lost her bid for re-election. It is extremely rare for a sitting minister to lose a race for office in Japan. However, in a somewhat unusual move, she was allowed to remain on as minister of justice until the end of her parliamentary term.

A Shocking Reversal

Some two weeks after defeat, Chiba turned face. She ordered two executions. And to add fuel to the fire, she did something no other justice minister had even contemplated: opening the Tokyo gallows, which had never been photographed, to the press (albeit without the noose).

Executions in Japan are shrouded in secrecy. Prisoners need not be informed of when they will hang, and we surmise that most do not know until the morning of the execution. Until about 10 years ago, the Ministry of Justice did not even make public announcements of executions. The public and relatives of the deceased heard the news after the ministry informed prisoner's attorneys, who then alerted concerned family and human rights organizations.

Say it ain't so Keiko

Chiba's title, Minister of Justice, was a bit of a misnomer. A proper translation of the title 'Ministry of Justice' (Houmusho) is better rendered as the 'Ministry of Laws' (as it is called in the Philippines and in Singapore). The ministry is charged with maintaining the dominant social narrative: citizens should work hard, not complain, avoid litigation, and listen to authority. 'Justice' is hardly part of the agenda.

Quite often, ordering an execution is a rite of passage for new justice ministers. Many authorize them soon after appointment. Executions assuage upper-level bureaucrats, fellow ruling party politicians, as well as the public which supports capital punishment.

From the outset, Chiba refused to execute. Why did she renege? The most likely guess is that the apparatchiks teased, "See what your abolitionist tendencies have wrought? We told you to execute and you ignored us. You should have listened. The Japanese public believe in the death penalty. Now you are a lame duck minister."

Penal Populism

Long before running for office, Donald Trump firmly supported the death penalty. In 1989, he paid for several full-page articles, including in The New York Times, screaming for the reinstitution of the death penalty in New York state. This was revenge against five black men who were then alleged to have attacked a white woman and became known as the Central Park Five.

The Central Park Five were falsely accused. All were later exonerated. One would expect a normal mind to bear remorse for advocating what would have constituted wrongful executions. Or at the very least, to avoid making the same mistake twice.

Donald J. Trump was not of a normal mind. And one wonders if former justice minister Chiba also became temporarily deluded. Be it the US, or Japan, support for the death penalty brings political rewards, and from opposition can foster political reprisals. The US and Japan are the only large, advanced democracies that conduct executions. And until complete abolition is reached in both countries, penal populism - political actors teasing voters with executions and other severe criminal justice policies - will likely continue to woo the public.

Michael H. Fox is associate professor at Hyogo University and director of the Japan Innocence and Death Penalty Information Center (

Drug Smugglers Are Being Sentenced to Death via Zoom

Source: Vice (7 April 2021)

Courts in Indonesia and Singapore are using video calls to sentence to death people convicted of drug trafficking, according to drug harm reduction experts.

Harm Reduction International (HRI), which published its annual report into global drug war death penalties on Wednesday, told VICE World News that 19 drug offenders were sentenced to death in Indonesia during virtual hearings held on video apps such as Zoom and WhatsApp between March 2020 and March this year. Two people convicted of drug trafficking were handed death sentences over Zoom calls in Singapore last year.

The report said use of video calls for trial hearings and to administer death sentences introduced due to COVID-19 constituted a “significant violation of their fair trial rights”.

Lawyers for defendants said the video conference calls, which featured defendants speaking from prison, were often prone to interruption and “freezing” due to bad internet connections. Indonesia has some of the lowest internet speeds in the world.

In addition, they said the online format meant they could not properly consult with defendants, and that proceedings were not always be witnessed by the general public, including family members. A number of those sentenced to death were foreign nationals, some of whom who had no access to court interpreters. Lawyers also said Zoom calls were lacking in terms of security and confidentiality.

“We cannot record the process, nor take screenshots or photos unless we get the judges’ permission. Virtual hearings mean the whole process is not open for the public because the link is distributed limitedly,” lawyers who defended some of the traffickers told HRI.

The virtual death sentences in Indonesia include the case of three Malaysians, Kumar Atchababoo, Rajandran Ramasamy, and Sanggat Ramasamy, who were sentenced to death via an online video call in November after being convicted of attempting to smuggle 28.6kg of methamphetamine into Indonesia last January. A defence lawyer said he would be appealing the decision as the online trial meant he could not communicate with his client. In February a Pakistani national and a Yemeni national were handed death sentences for methamphetamine smuggling after an online Zoom trial and sentencing.

In Singapore last May, Punithan Genasan, a 37-year old from Malaysia, was sentenced to death by hanging via a sentencing hearing held on Zoom. Genasan, who had denied the charges, was sentenced after being found guilty of a heroin smuggling charge dating back to 2011.

“The use of virtual platforms to conduct criminal proceedings, especially those which result in a death sentence, can expose the defendant to significant violations of their fair trial rights and impinge on the quality of the defence,” said the report.

As of October 2020, according to the report, there were 355 people on death row in Indonesia, of which 214 were convicted for drug offences – a 29 percent increase from 2019. Indonesia has a reputation for harsh treatment of its addicted drug users, and has seen a clampdown on its tourists drug scene since 2019.

The report found that despite the COVID pandemic there was a rise in death sentences handed out for drug offences. In 2020, courts sentenced 213 people to death for drug offences, an increase of 16 percent from the previous year, with Vietnam (78) and Indonesia (77) representing three quarters of all death sentences given for drugs. In June five people, including a mother and her daughter, were sentenced to death for their role in smuggling 26.4kg of heroin into Vietnam from Laos.

However, the number of executions for drug offences tumbled last year by 75 percent, due to the pandemic and also a near moratorium on drug crime executions in Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s top executioners for drug offences for the past decade. There were 30 confirmed executions for drug offences in 2020, down from 116 in 2019. All of the executions took place in 3 countries, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

One case involved an Egyptian truck driver who was arrested with a stash of amphetamine hidden in a truck he was driving transporting in Saudi Arabia in 2017. Human rights groups said he was tortured so badly he missed two court hearings and was denied legal representation. His family wasn’t informed of his arrest, conviction and execution, in January last year, which they found out about from fellow prisoners and a newspaper article.

Data on the death penalty for drug offences is “grossly insufficient” according to HRI, partly due to a lack of information on executions in China and Vietnam, with both nations reported to routinely execute people for drug offences. Vietnam considers the death penalty a matter of state secrecy.

The report said 35 countries still retain the death penalty for drug offences. There are at least 3,000 people currently on death row for drug offences worldwide.

“The fact that countries continued to sentence people to death for drug offences amidst a global pandemic is abhorrent and emblematic of an overly punitive approach to drug control. Too many countries remain reluctant to move away from capital punishment and their false belief that the death penalty deters drug offences,” said Naomi Burke-Shyne, executive director at HRI.

“While the record low number of executions for drug offences is certainly welcome, executions are only the tip of the iceberg. Executions are the most visible part of a hugely problematic system, characterised by human rights violations.”

There were no drug offence executions in the US in 2020. Although in February last year former President Donald Trump praised countries, including China, which impose the death penalty for drug offences, saying, erroneously, that “states with a very powerful death penalty on drug dealers don’t have a drug problem.” Incumbent President Joe Biden has pledged to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level. In December 2020, the United Nations (UN) General Assembly adopted its eighth resolution calling for a moratorium of the death penalty, with record-breaking support from 123 countries.

Monday, 1 February 2021

COVID-19 stops the executioner, reducing executions by 85 per cent in 2020

Source: AsiaNews (18 January 2021),-reducing-executions-by-85-per-cent-in-2020-52101.html

Riyadh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The number of executions dropped considerably in Saudi Arabia in 2020 following recording breaking years (see 2019). Because of a shortage of executioners, Saudi authorities have also launched a recruitment drive.

Although the Saudi kingdom, still ruled as an absolute fiefdom, led by Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, is sending out signals of reform and modernisation, critics note that many people, some minors at the time of their offences, are still on death row.

According to data provided by the Saudi Human Rights Commission, “only” 27 people were executed last year, with a decrease of 85 per cent over the previous year.

One reason, experts say, is a moratorium on capital punishment for crimes related to drugs and drug trafficking.

At the same time, restrictions and lockdowns imposed by the authorities to contain the novel coronavirus pandemic have cut down the number of crimes.

For the president of the Commission, Awwad Alawwad, this is a sign that “the kingdom and its judicial system are focusing more on rehabilitation and prevention rather than punishment.”

In 2019 the executioner struck 184 times, a record according to several international NGOs.

Reprieve, an anti-death penalty NGO, counted 25 executions for 2020, the lowest figure since they started keeping records in 2013.

However, the number could jump significantly this year as pandemic-related restrictions were the main factor in last year’s drop.

In fact, a third of the executions recorded last year, Reprieve explains in a note, “were carried out in the month of December alone,” and in the last quarter, the trend saw a rapid increase over previous quarters.

In April, Riyadh had announced a moratorium on the death penalty for offenders who were minors at the time of their crimes.

However, at least five people sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were underage are still waiting on death row, this according to the Saudi Human Rights Commission.

The latter also notes that decree announcing the moratorium was never published in the Official Gazette. What is more, Saudi Arabia’s official news agency, SPA, also failed to mention it as one of the main events of 2020.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

End death penalty quickly, Bar urges govt

Source: Free Malaysia Today (19 December 2020)

PETALING JAYA: The Malaysian Bar wants the government to speed up the legislative process to abolish the death penalty and bring about certainty to those on Death Row.

Its president Salim Bashir said this group of prisoners had to undergo psychological torture from the time the capital punishment was imposed by the courts to the day it is carried out, which sometimes takes more than a decade.

It is estimated that more than 1,000 prisoners are now awaiting execution in Malaysia.

“Hopefully, the government will make its decision soon to bring closure to their long wait,” Salim said.

He said that there had been a moratorium on carrying out hangings since 2018, pending a decision on the abolition of the death penalty.

Salim said it also took time for such prisoners to exhaust their appeals before the courts and clemency applications.

“Previously, executions were carried out after a long wait when convicts were old and sick and this was considered to be ruthless,” he said.

Salim was speaking days after convicted drug trafficker Chu Tak Fai, who spent 27 years in jail, including 12 years on death row, was finally given his freedom.

The 50-year-old Hong Kong national left for home last week after the Sultan of Kedah gave him a final pardon.

Chu had his capital punishment commuted to natural life imprisonment in 2006 and later to life imprisonment for 20 years.

The jail term was to begin from 2016. In March this year, the sultan granted him his freedom.

The bill to abolish the mandatory death penalty for 11 serious offences was scheduled to have been tabled at the March parliamentary sitting this year. However, the change in government delayed the matter.

The bill had proposed that a jail term of up to 30 years be imposed once an accused is sentenced for offences like murder and drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, rights group, Eliminating Deaths and Abuse in Custody Together (EDICT), said many were not as lucky as Chu and no one could fathom the pain and agony that he went through while in isolation in Death Row.

“Chu would have remained unproductive during the prime years of his life in prison,” said its chairman M Visvanathan.

Visvanathan also said long term inmates should be allowed to assimilate with the local community like first working with prison staff and later taking up jobs outside.

“Our prison reform is long overdue and now is the opportune time to take progressive steps,” he added.

Thursday, 26 November 2020

Explaining Southeast Asia’s Addiction to the Death Penalty

Source: The Diplomat (25 November 2020)

On November 17, the United Nations General Assembly voted on a resolution calling for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment. It passed convincingly: a total of 120 nations voted for the resolution, which called for nations to restrict the use of the death penalty, with the aim of eventually eliminating it altogether.

One curious fact was that of the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, only three – Cambodia, Malaysia, and the Philippines – voted to support the resolution. Singapore and Brunei voted against it, while the remaining five nations – among them some of the region’s most eager users of the death penalty – abstained.

The U.N. vote indicates an increasingly widespread international consensus against the use of the death penalty. As the General Assembly stated in a December 2007 resolution, “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”

But the vote also highlighted Southeast Asia’s continuing use of – and defense of – capital punishment, despite the tireless efforts of the region’s death penalty abolitionists. To start with, it is no surprise to see Singapore sitting squarely in the “NO” column. Anyone who has descended into Singapore’s Changi Airport will be familiar with airlines’ chirpy reminder that Singapore imposes the death penalty for drug trafficking offenses. According to Amnesty International, Singapore is one of four countries known to have carried out executions for drug-related violations in recent years. The country reportedly has 50 people on death row who have exhausted all appeals.

Moreover, the city-state has been among the most forthright and confident defenders of the death penalty as a punishment for serious crimes. This was reflected in Singapore’s introduction of an amendment to the U.N. resolution that asserts the “sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties.” The amendment was adopted by a vote of failed to pass, but was also supported by 33 other countries, including by Brunei, Laos, and Vietnam.

Some of those nations that abstained from the vote also continue to hand down death sentences. Take Indonesia. While the country has not executed anyone since 2016, the organization Human Rights Watch (HRW) points out that it has approximately 274 people on death row, including 60 people who have been there for more than 10 years. In 2019, Indonesian courts handed down at least 80 death sentences in 2019, up from 48 in 2018.

Vietnam and Laos, two other nations that abstained on the U.N. vote, do not publicize statistics on the use of the death penalty. But according to HRW, Vietnam may have executed as many as 429 people between 2013 and 2016.

Even those Southeast Asian nations that supported the U.N. resolution are uncertain allies of abolition. One of them, Malaysia, holds approximately 1,324 people on death row. While the reformist government that was elected in 2018 pledged to ban capital punishment, this has since been watered down into a pledge that it will merely abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty – a step in the right direction, but a small one.

The Philippines banned the death penalty in 2006, but since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has on various occasions threatened to reintroduce it, particularly for drug-related crimes. Indeed, one could mount a case that Duterte has introduced a de facto form of capital punishment in his violent “war on drugs,” which by one estimate has killed more than 12,000 people – many innocent, all without trial – since 2016.

Curiously, the nation with possibly the best record on capital punishment is Cambodia, a country whose government is not otherwise known as a staunch defender of human rights. The country banned the death penalty prior to the arrival of a U.N. peacekeeping mission in 1992-93. Indeed, with Prime Minister Hun Sen having mostly subverted the democratic institutions introduced by the U.N. mission, the ban on the death penalty may well turn out to be its most lasting legacy.

What explains Southeast Asia’s addiction to the death penalty? On one level, the region’s governments continue to cling to an outmoded zero-tolerance mentality toward crime, despite the scant evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent to crime. As evidenced by the language of Singapore’s proposed amendment to the U.N. resolution, the issue has also teased out an anti-colonial reflex on the part of some Southeast Asian nations, for whom foreign criticism has caused them to dig in their heels.

Whatever the causes, the result of the latest U.N. vote suggests that it will be some time before Southeast Asian nations move toward full abolition of capital punishment.

Asian Nations Reject UN Vote Against Death Penalty

Source: Human Rights Watch (24 November 2020)

(Bangkok) – Eleven countries from the Asia-Pacific region were among the small minority that voted against a United Nations resolution opposing the death penalty, Human Rights Watch said today. On November 17, 120 UN member states voted in favor of a resolution in the Third Committee of the UN General Assembly reiterating a call for a moratorium on the use of capital punishment. In December, the General Assembly plenary is expected to adopt the resolution, which shows the world’s rejection of this inherently cruel and irrevocable form of punishment.

Only 39 countries voted against the resolution. The 11 from the Asia-Pacific region were: Afghanistan, Brunei Darussalam, China, India, Japan, the Maldives, North Korea, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, and Tonga.

“It’s no surprise the governments that voted against a death penalty moratorium include some of the most serious rights violators in the world,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The fact that 11 Asian and Pacific governments voted against the UN resolution, including many that still carry out executions, shows how far the region needs to go to develop justice systems that respect human rights.”

The countries voting in favor of the moratorium should urgently take necessary steps towards abolition of the death penalty, and should press the 39 countries that voted against the measure to place a moratorium on executions. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because of its inherent cruelty.

The UN member states’ call for a moratorium effectively neutralizes an amendment to the resolution that Singapore introduced on behalf of 33 countries – including many in Asia – that asserts the “sovereign right of all countries to develop their own legal systems, including determining appropriate legal penalties.”

The resolution went further than previous versions. For the first time, women were acknowledged as a group who are subject to the discriminatory application of the death penalty. Disadvantaged and minority groups were again recognized as disproportionately represented among death row inmates. The resolution raised concerns about the use of the death penalty against children, in particular the need to restrict the death penalty’s use when an individuals’ age cannot be determined.

Previous resolutions called for governments to be transparent about the death penalty by publishing information about the age, race, sex, and nationality of people on death row, including the numbers of people sentenced, awaiting executions, and those whose sentences were commuted on appeal. Asian governments that still use capital punishment have shown little transparency regarding death penalty statistics, Human Rights Watch said.

The seven General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions adopted since 2007 demonstrate a growing global consensus against the death penalty. However, many people in Asia are still being put to death. At the end of 2019, at least 26,604 people were languishing on death row around the world. By the end of 2019, Pakistan had one of the world’s largest known death row populations. Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka also have swelling numbers of inmates on death row, while in Singapore there are reportedly 50 people on death row who have exhausted all appeals. In many of these countries, the death penalty is mandatory for a range of offenses, including non-violent drug offenses, despite calls from the UN special rapporteurs on summary executions and on torture that “executions for drug crimes amount to a violation of international law and are unlawful killings.”

It is largely accepted that China is the world’s largest executioner followed by Iran. Dui Hua, a nongovernmental organization that tracks China’s death penalty statistics, estimates that 84,000 executions occurred in China between 2002 to 2018, though the numbers appear to be declining significantly since a 2007 decision allowing the Supreme People’s Court to review all death sentences. The exact numbers of death sentences carried out in China are unknown and remain a state secret. It has not been possible to get accurate figures from North Korea, Vietnam, and Laos. Human Rights Watch has documented public executions in North Korea, especially in political prison camps (kwanliso). Despite executions being considered a state secret in Vietnam, the Ministry of Public Security reported in early 2017 that authorities executed 429 persons between 2013 and 2016.

Malaysia, which voted in favor of the moratorium, holds approximately 1,324 people on death row. In October 2018, the Malaysian government imposed a moratorium on executions and announced its intention to abolish the death penalty. In March 2019, however, it backtracked, announcing that it would maintain the death penalty but would merely end the mandatory application of the punishment. While the moratorium on executions appears to remain in place, the Malaysian government has yet to take steps to end the use of the mandatory death penalty.

Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam were among the 24 countries that abstained from voting. Indonesia, which has not executed anyone since 2016, has approximately 274 people awaiting execution, including 60 people who have been on death row for 10 years. At least 80 death sentences were handed down in 2019, a significant increase from the 48 handed down in 2018.

More than 15 Asia-Pacific countries voted in favor of the resolution. These included Sri Lanka and the Philippines, despite their moving in the opposite direction. Last year, the Sri Lankan government threatened to end its 43-year de facto moratorium, which the courts rejected. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly threatened to reinstate the death penalty.

In its December 2007 resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, the UN General Assembly stated that “there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable.”

“The shocking number of people sitting on death row in Asia make the region an aberration in the global move towards abolition of the death penalty,” Robertson said. “UN member states that supported the moratorium should band together to put concerted pressure on countries to get rid of the death penalty and commute all death sentences.”

Monday, 2 November 2020

Saudi justice reform falls short as the death penalty is still inflicted on minors

Source: Asia (30 October 2020)

Riyadh (AsiaNews) – Saudi prosecutors continue to seek the death penalty in cases involving minors even though the practice was cancelled for crimes committed before the age of 18, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports.

According to the human rights advocacy group, Saudi prosecutors recently called for the execution of eight people, accused of offences of opinion and protest-related crimes. In one case the accused was only nine at the time of the alleged crime.

Last April, King Salman issued a royal decree ending death sentences for crimes committed by minors, imposing instead a maximum sentence of 10 years in a juvenile detention facility. However, the decree has not yet taken effect, and rights groups warn that the death penalty is still in place.

Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Saudi Arabia has signed, the death penalty is outlawed for crimes committed by minors.

Overall, the Wahhabi kingdom has one of the worst human rights records in the world with violations committed mainly by its police and security forces.

Human Rights Watch recently obtained and analysed the charge sheets for two group trials that included the eight men in 2019.

Some of the crimes listed were allegedly committed when the defendants were aged 14 to 17. One of them, now 18, is charged for a nonviolent crime he allegedly committed when he was 9. All eight men have been in pretrial detention for up to two years.

“Saudi spin doctors are marketing judicial reforms as progress,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. But the reality is very different since “prosecutors appear to blatantly ignore them and carry on as usual”.

For Page, “If Saudi Arabia is serious about reforming its criminal justice system, it should start by banning the death penalty against alleged child offenders in all cases.”

In the case of the eight on trial, the prosecutor, who responds directly to the monarch, has levelled charges that do not resemble recognisable crimes, such as “seeking to destabilise the social fabric by participating in protests and funeral processions,” “chanting slogans hostile to the regime,” and “seeking to incite discord and division.”

All of the accused are from Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, where most of the country’s persecuted Shia minority live.

What is more, the new decree does not apply to qisas (retributive justice offences, usually for murder) or hudud crimes, serious crimes defined under the country’s interpretation of Islamic law that carry specific penalties.

Sources told HRW that two of the defendants, al-Nimr and al-Faraj, were denied legal counsel and tortured during questioning at the start of their detention.

Last year, Saudi Arabia executed 37 people in a mass execution. One of them was a minor at the time.

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Kazakhstan takes important step towards abolishing death penalty

Source: Amnesty International (24 September 2020)

Reacting to news that Kazakhstan has signed the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing it to abolish the death penalty, Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, said:

“This news encourages us as Kazakhstan gets closer to join the ever-growing family of nations that have left this shameful punishment behind. Kazakhstan must now take the final step by abolishing the death penalty in law for all crimes and ratifying the Optional Protocol without reservations.”

Russia, Tajikistan and Belarus are now the only three countries in Europe and Central Asia which haven’t yet signed or ratified the Second Optional Protocol. Belarus is the only country in the region still to carry out executions.

“Abolition of this type of punishment globally remains a priority for Amnesty International.”


Kazakhstani President Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev announced that his country would join the protocol on the abolition of the death penalty in his speech at the 74th session of the UN General Assembly in December 2019.

Kazakhstan retains the death penalty for terrorism-related offences and has had an indefinite moratorium on the use of the death penalty since 2003. Courts stopped imposing the death penalty in 2004, but an exception was made in 2016, when the death penalty was imposed on a man who was convicted of a mass shooting in Almaty. He remains the only person on death row in Kazakhstan.

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Singaporean Earns Temporary Reprieve in Capital Drug Case

Source: The Diplomat (17 September 2020)

Thanks to a last minute judicial intervention, a Singaporean national has narrowly avoided the sentence imposed on him by the country’s High Court in 2016. At dawn on September 18, the 44-year-old Syed Suhail Bin Syed Zin was scheduled to be executed by hanging at Singapore’s Changi Prison for drug trafficking offenses.

The reprieve was announced on Facebook today by the human rights lawyer M Ravi, who wrote that judges had agreed to an interim stay of execution. The decision will delay the sentence pending an appeal to the High Court’s earlier dismissal of Ravi’s request for a judicial review into Syed’s case.

Before the last minute stay, Syed’s case had attracted considerable attention from death penalty abolitionists and human rights groups, who described it as another instance of the inhumanity of the death penalty in general, and the cruelties of Singapore’s system in particular.

According to High Court documents, Syed was arrested in August 2011 and charged with possession of 38.84 grams of heroin. In January 2016, the court found Syed guilty of drug trafficking under Singapore’s draconian Misuse of Drugs Act. The law carries a mandatory death sentence for offenses involving more than 15 grams of heroin.

Singapore’s use of the death penalty is intimately associated with the city-state’s zero tolerance policy toward illicit drugs. Over the years it has resulted in dozens of hangings, including of many foreigners. In May, Punithan Genasan, a 37-year-old Malaysian national, was sentenced to death via Zoom on a heroin trafficking charge dating back to 2011.

Singapore is one of four countries known to have carried out executions for drug-related offenses in recent years, according to Amnesty International.

Since Syed’s execution date was announced on September 14, death penalty abolitionists have highlighted the callous way that his case was handled. According to Think Center, a local non-governmental organization, Syed’s family was informed barely a week ahead of the set execution, and told to make funeral arrangements. No allowance had been made for them to travel from Malaysia before the execution of the sentence, given the ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. The organization described the forty-something Syed’s sentence as “a grim reminder that Singapore’s factory of death has never ceased.”

Then there is the question of whether the death penalty even serves its intended function. In a recent article on Medium, Singaporean journalist and anti-death penalty campaigner Kirsten Han argued that the Singaporean government’s view of the death penalty – that it deterred drug use, and therefore saved more lives in the long run – failed to address the complex root causes of drug use and dependency. According to the organization Human Rights Watch, Syed began using heroin in 1999, and spent two extended stints in a drug rehabilitation center trying to recover from his addiction before his arrest on trafficking charges.

“At the end of the day, the capital punishment regime is a lazy way to ‘solve’ a problem,” Han wrote. “It allows us to take the ‘easy’ way out and not talk about things like the intersection of class and race when it comes to crime and policing, or about more holistic and restorative ways of dealing with drug use and abuse.”

Shortly after the announcement of the reprieve, Han welcomed the news, but said that similar stays had been granted in the past and still ended in execution. “This development gives us hope and time,” she told The Diplomat, “but I don’t think we can say it’s any indication that the Singaporean judiciary is softening on capital punishment.” Singaporean courts have the power to grant clemency, but have not done this for a death row inmate since 1998.

On the same day, however, Singapore’s Court of Appeal also reversed its own decision to convict a Nigerian national of a capital drug trafficking charge, nearly a decade after his arrest. This news casts at least a glimmer of hope that lawyers working on Syed’s behalf will manage to overturn his sentence, if not his conviction.

“I dream of better days because hope is my only possession,” Syed wrote in a handwritten letter that he sent to his lawyer M Ravi a few days before his scheduled hanging. He added: “I love Singapore. Everything I love is here. Being Singaporean, though, has expedited my execution.”

Thanks to the lawyers and activists toiling on his behalf, that execution has been delayed – at least for now.

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Saudi Arabia, a world leader in executions, weighs ending capital punishment for drug crimes

Source: Washington Post (27 August 2020)

Saudi Arabia is considering ending the use of the death penalty for drug-related offenses, a change that could spare the lives of dozens of prisoners in the kingdom every year, according to a Saudi official and human rights groups that monitor capital punishment in the country.

The initiative appeared aimed at countering outrage over the kingdom’s human rights record, including its mass executions. The consequences of removing drug offenses from the list of capital crimes could be significant: Nearly 40 percent of the roughly 800 executions carried out in Saudi Arabia over the past five years were for offenses such as narcotics trafficking, according to Reprieve, a human rights group that tracks the use of the death penalty in the kingdom.

A Saudi official said that the kingdom was in the process of revising penalties for drug-related crimes and that a decision to “abolish” capital punishment for drug offenses was “expected very soon.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal government discussions.

Executions have long been at the heart of global criticism of Saudi Arabia, highlighting an opaque justice system that puts large numbers of people to death every year, generally by beheading. Until recently, many executions were carried out in public squares.

In the last few years, Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy, has lagged behind only Iran and China in annual executions, according to data published by the Death Penalty Information Center.

Human rights advocates said they would welcome any reduction in executions but said the government had yet to produce evidence of a policy change. The government, for instance, has not issued a revised law or informed death row inmates that sentences would be commuted.

So far this year, executions appear to have fallen dramatically: Since January, at least 16 people have been put to death, compared with 140 in the same period in 2019 and 88 in 2018, according to tallies by the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, or ESOHR. The group and other organizations said it was unclear whether the decrease was due to the coronavirus pandemic or part of a government-imposed moratorium.

“We hope. Always, we are praying,” said Zeinab Abo al-Kheir, whose brother, Hussein Abo al-Kheir, a Jordanian national, was convicted in 2015 of drug-trafficking charges and could be executed at any time, according to Reprieve, which has advocated on his behalf.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler, spoke of abolishing the death penalty for some crimes two years ago. In an interview with Time magazine, Mohammed said there were a “few areas” where it would be possible to reduce death sentences to life in prison, without specifying what crimes would be affected.

Saudi authorities do not appear to be contemplating ending capital punishment for murder and several other crimes for which penalties are prescribed by Islamic law. But drug offenses and other nonviolent crimes generally belong to a category of offenses known as “tazir,” in which punishments are left to the discretion of a judge.

Judges rely on a 1987 ruling by religious scholars that prescribes the death penalty for people who bring drugs into the country, as well as a 2005 law that calls for capital punishment in drug-trafficking cases, according to a 2018 report by Human Rights Watch on drug-related executions.

Hussein Abo al-Kheir, the death row inmate, was arrested after crossing the border from Jordan into Saudi Arabia in May 2014 and was charged with possessing narcotics after the authorities said they found a large quantity of amphetamines in the car, according to a summary of his case by ESOHR.

He confessed after he was tortured for nearly two weeks, the group said. He later recanted, but a court found him guilty of drug trafficking and sentenced him to death, largely based on his confession, according to ESOHR. His sister, Zeinab, who lives in Canada, said Hussein has eight children and had been working as a driver for a Saudi family at the time of his arrest.

Saudi Arabia’s leaders have searched for ways to repair the country’s global image since Saudi government agents killed and dismembered journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018. The kingdom has also faced criticism for twice in recent years carrying out mass executions of people convicted of “terrorism” charges, many in trials that were criticized as unfair by human rights groups.

In one of the mass executions, in April 2019, 37 people were put to death, including at least two who were minors at the time of their alleged crimes.

“Certainly, the authorities have been looking for ways they can implement reforms on some of the issues they find embarrassing, and which have given Saudi Arabia a really bad reputation,” said Adam Coogle, a researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows Saudi Arabia, referring to changes that have granted women more rights and abolished punishments like flogging.

Whatever the motivations, though, “these are important steps forward. If they follow through with this, there are a lot of people who won’t die,” he said.

Saudi Arabia’s advisory Shura Council has over the past year discussed ending the death penalty for the category of crimes left to a judge’s discretion, according to local media reports. And in April, the government announced that minors would no longer be put to death for such crimes.

“Basically, they stopped executing people for nonviolent offenses in February,” said James Suzano, the director of legal affairs for ESOHR. It was impossible to know whether the moratorium was deliberate or a consequence of the pandemic, which had slowed the work of state institutions, but there was “a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to Saudi Arabia taking this idea seriously,” Suzano said, referring to a partial execution ban.

But, he added, “we have not seen any implementing legislation.”

An article in July in the Times of London quoted unnamed sources as saying a law on ending the death penalty for nonviolent tazir crimes had not yet been finalized.

A spokesman for the Saudi Embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to questions about whether the country’s policy on the death penalty had changed.

Abdullah Alaoudh, a visiting assistant professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a critic of the Saudi government, said the kingdom’s approach to revising the death penalty, if confirmed, reminds him of a quote from Malcolm X: “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and then pull it out six inches, there’s no progress, is there?”

The Saudi efforts were “better than the whole knife,” said Alaoudh, whose father, Salman al-Awda, a popular Saudi cleric, is imprisoned and facing the death penalty in the kingdom after criticizing the monarchy.

“I think it is good that they are thinking this way,” he said, adding that it was not just Saudi executions that needed to be scrutinized, but “the whole criminal procedure system.”

Thursday, 27 August 2020

Cabinet to mull scrapping death penalty for drug offences

Source: The Malaysian Reserve (27 August 2020)

THE Cabinet will review options to abolish capital punishment for drug trafficking offences, de facto Law Minister Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan said.

Following the final report by the special committee to review alternative sentences to the mandatory death penalty, which was submitted to the government on July 17, the minister said discussions will be held before a decision is made on the matter.

“The final report contains recommendations on alternative punishments for 11 offences that carry the mandatory death sentence, offences under the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 (Act 234), and 21 offences that carry the discretionary death sentence,” he told the August house yesterday.

He was responding to Ramkarpal Singh (Pakatan Harapan [PH]-Bukit Gelugor) who asked the prime minister whether the government would abolish the death sentence for drug trafficking.

Takiyuddin added that the committee had also made recommendations for long-term improvements to the country’s justice system.

“The report is expected to be presented at a Cabinet meeting for consideration and approval.

“The findings are expected to answer the debate on whether the government will propose amending the punishment for drug trafficking to a minimum jail sentence so that punishments will be given based on the facts of each case,” he said.

According to the law minister, as of Aug 11, a total 918 prisoners have been sentenced to death under Section 39B of which 472 are Malaysians and 446 are non-citizens.

Under section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act, those in possession of 15g or more heroin and morphine; 1,000g or more opium (raw or prepared); 200g or more cannabis; and 40g or more cocaine will receive the mandatory death sentence.

Last year, a special committee was established to carry out the Compensation Penalty Study on Mandatory Death Penalty within four months from Sept 20, 2019, to Jan 31, 2020.

“The special committee submitted the study on July 17 instead of January as they needed more time.

“Regardless, it is the government’s intention for the changes to be implemented as soon as possible. Malaysia continues to engage in smart partnerships with countries that use their laws to curb drug abuse in addition to other measures used to address drug trafficking,” Takiyuddin said.

He emphasised that the government also takes international conventions into consideration.

“My predecessor has initiated this matter, for the national interest. We have conducted the study and I will evaluate as best as possible which stems from the previous government’s intent to make sure that justice is served.

“I give my assurance that we will fully consider the recommendations that have been set out by the committee,” he added.

The special committee members comprise former Federal Court judges, former Attorney General’s Chambers officers, former Prisons Department senior officers, the Bar Council, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, academics, criminologists and civil society organisations.

Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Philippines death penalty: A fight to stop the return of capital punishment

Source: BBC News (16 August 2020)

Capital punishment opponents expect a steep battle to prevent President Rodrigo Duterte from reimposing the death penalty, as he renews calls for the law as part of a "drug war" that has already killed thousands of Filipinos.

Few were surprised when Mr Duterte last month pushed, once again, to reintroduce the death penalty for drug offenders.

Since coming to power in 2016 he has waged a brutal crackdown on suspected drug users and dealers, issuing police with shoot-to-kill orders while encouraging citizens to kill drug users too.

Officially the police say they shoot only in self-defence and data shows more than 8,000 people have been killed in anti-drug operations. The nation's human rights commission estimates a toll as high as 27,000.

The piling bodies have been documented by photojournalists whose images of dead suspects face-down in pools of blood after a police raid, or strewn on streets in suspected vigilante murders, have shocked the world.

"The death penalty would give the state another weapon in its ongoing war against drugs," said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Mr Duterte was restrained, at first, by the upper house of parliament. But last year's mid-term elections saw his allies win control of the senate and many fear the law could now be passed.

Twenty-three bills have been filed across both houses to reinstate the death penalty for drug crimes, including possession and sales. Committee deliberations began last week.
Nuanced views

Mr Conde says he would like to be proved wrong but senses the law "is as good as passed". He points to the swift recent passing of the controversial anti-terrorism law, and the speed at which ABS-CBN, a broadcaster critical of the president, was forced off air.

The move would be a breach of international human rights law.

But this is unlikely to faze Mr Duterte, who frequently expresses his disdain for human rights checks. Last year the Philippines left the International Criminal Court as it was probing accusations of crimes linked to his drugs campaign.

Surveys by the Social Weather Stations, a pollster, have shown the war on drugs remains popular among Filipinos despite experts saying the signature policy has failed to curb drug use or supply. A majority are also in favour of reinstating capital punishment.

But a closer look at the results shows an alternative picture, says Maria Socorro Diokno, secretary-general of the Free Legal Assistance Group, a network of human rights lawyers.

When presented with alternatives to capital punishment for crimes linked to illegal drugs, for instance, most favoured other options.

"They begin to think that death is not always the answer," said Ms Diokno.

Ms Diokno, who leads her group's anti-death penalty task force, has been braced for a battle with Mr Duterte ever since he vowed to bring back the death penalty as part of his election campaign.

She knows that minds can be changed because she was part of the movement that succeeded last time.

The death penalty has been abolished twice before - first in 1987 and then again in 2006 after being reinstated in 1993.

The last push for abolition was led by the Catholic church, which holds considerable influence over Filipinos in the largely Catholic country while Mr Duterte is an open critic.

Last week the Clergy of the Archdiocese of Manila condemned the "lack of independence and imprudence" of some lawmakers in supporting the president on the issue.

"We see such acts as betrayal of the people's interests and an implicit support to the creeping authoritarian tendencies exuded by this administration," it said.
Mistaken convictions

In his annual address to the nation last month Mr Duterte claimed reinstating the death penalty by lethal injection would "deter criminality".

But there is little evidence to prove that the death penalty can be a deterrent. Instead research has shown the punishment frequently affects the most disadvantaged.

In the Philippines alone the Supreme Court said in 2004 that 71.77% of death penalty verdicts handed by lower courts were wrong.

By imposing the death penalty for drug offences, the Philippines would also be moving away from what Harm Reduction International has identified as a downward global trend in using the penalty for such crimes.

It says 35 countries and territories retain capital punishment for drug offenders but only a few carry out executions regularly. Five of the eight "high application states" are in South East Asia.

Raymund Narag, an assistant professor of criminology at Southern Illinois University, knows firsthand the problems of a flawed criminal justice system.

He spent nearly seven years jailed in the Philippines as a pre-trial detainee before he was acquitted of a campus murder that took place at his university when he was 20.

The death penalty was still intact at the time and prosecutors had sought it for the 10 men charged.

Worse than his overcrowded cell and frequent prison riots, he says, was the "agony of waiting" for hearings.

"It was traumatic thinking that you can be put to death for a crime you did not commit," said Dr Narag, speaking from the US.

Now 46, he was one of five men eventually acquitted, while the others were sentenced to life imprisonment.

The experience has shaped his career. He now researches prolonged trial detention in the Philippines, while advocating for criminal justice reform.

Dr Narag says that if he hadn't managed to track down a key witness, an overseas worker, to return home and testify, proving he wasn't at the crime scene, he may have been convicted.

Through his advocacy he wants Filipinos to know the consequences of mistaken convictions, which could become mistaken executions if the law changes, in an already struggling justice system.

The scope of and timeline for the eventual death penalty bill put to vote in parliament is uncertain, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic. Some have argued the bill should not be a priority.

Gloria Lai, Asia director of the International Drug Policy Consortium, says the death penalty has not solved the drug-related problems of any country.

"It is the poor and vulnerable who bear the harsh punishment of criminal justice systems in grossly unjust ways," she says.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

‘Do Not Execute’ campaign rocks Iran judiciary

Source: Asia Times (7 August 2020)

November 2019 marked one of the gloomiest junctures of the 21st century for Iranians, when in a timespan of less than two weeks, angry protests by large groups of people against the overnight spike in the price of fuel triggered a violent response by the government and some 230 people were killed, according to the official statistics, while a report by Reuters put the number of casualties at 1,500.

The protests, which first erupted in oil-rich Khuzestan province and quickly mushroomed across the country, were initially an expression of outrage over the 300% rise in the price of gasoline, in a country gripped by international sanctions and deep-seated economic disparities.

However, they soon evolved into a venue for disgruntled Iranians to voice their dismay at an array of other challenges facing them, including the dearth of civil liberties, entrenched corruption in government institutions, state unaccountability, unbridled hyperinflation and spiraling inequities.

The government of President Hassan Rouhani, in a rush to quell the revolt and restore calm, shut down Internet connectivity for a total of 10 harrowing days, allegedly to prevent the “rioters” from organizing on social media, and armed forces opted for violent clampdowns, the details of which have been elaborately documented by advocacy organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and by global media.

The United Nations reported one month after the national fury subsided that at least 7,000 people had been arrested at the height of the tensions.

The protests and the ensuing response unmasked the social rifts in a highly divided Iran and testified to a new level of confrontation between the government and the people.

Although there were extremists who exploited the civil movement to sow mayhem and destruction in some cities, including by damaging public property, the government’s botched handling of the episode and its resort to harsh measures to stifle dissent laid bare the deficiency of transparent procedures for the expression of grievances by the public, bringing to the fore the letdowns of the state’s relationship with civil society.

Now, many observers of Iran contend that four decades after the 1979 revolution, almost no protest movement has cropped up in the country that the authorities have not attributed to foreign “enemies,” and while the leadership asserts it recognizes peaceful dissent, there have been few instances of such campaigns that were not crushed with the disproportionate use of force.

‘Do Not Execute’

On February 21 this year, it was announced that three protesters of the November 2019 uprising, Amirhossein Moradi, 26, Saeed Tamjidi, 28, and Mohammad Rajabi, 26, had been sentenced to death on charges of “taking part in destruction and burning, aimed at countering the Islamic Republic system.” The spokesman to Iran’s judiciary also accused them of “armed robbery, kidnapping and harassment of the public.”

On July 10, one of the defendants’ lawyers revealed that the Supreme Court of Iran had upheld the verdict for the three young men, giving rise to speculations that they would be executed shortly.

The announcement was inflammatory enough to stir up massive protest activity, this time online, with people confined to their homes in the taxing days of the Covid-19 pandemic finding Twitter an appropriate platform to voice their communal rage at the ruling.

Regardless of what the three young men had perpetrated, the course of their legal proceedings, which involved their lawyers not having access to their files and a trial that many activists claimed was not fair, spawned a gigantic sympathy movement on Twitter with people posting tweets carrying the hashtag “Do Not Execute” in Persian.

Launched on July 14, the Twitter storm soon ended up trending internationally, and over the course of five days, more than 11 million tweets were posted decrying the confirmed death sentence for Moradi, Tamjidi and Rajabi.

The explosive online thrust was not merely an objection to the execution of the three men, about whose background and role in the November events few details are available; rather, it was a denunciation of the frequent use of capital punishment in Iran, which had cast its dark shadow this time over the doomed fate of three men in their 20s.

Iranians from all walks of life – artists, actors and actresses, journalists, university professors, politicians, lawyers, athletes, teachers, students and activists – as well as members of the Iranian diaspora weighed in on the online campaign and exhibited exceptional unity at a time when they continue to have polarizing differences on a number of issues, including the future of the country’s contentious nuclear program.

In a rare decision that was perceptibly a reaction to the wave of online protest, Iran’s judiciary announced on July 19 that it had suspended the planned executions, and as said by Babak Paknia, the lawyer of Amirhossein Moradi, the Supreme Court accepted the lawyers’ request for a retrial, reviving hopes that the verdict could be overturned.

The judiciary’s announcement represented the acknowledgement of a civil demand that was expressed in the most peaceful, refined manner by millions of Iranians at home and abroad. It was an endorsement of the conviction that even a fractured society like Iran can emerge successful in delivering shared objectives in difficult times.

Implications for the future

Iran is a country where the highest number of executions in the Middle East takes place. After China, Iran recorded the most executions in 2019. According to Amnesty International, 251 people were condemned to death in Iran last year, slightly down from 253 people in 2018.

Things have significantly improved since the turn of the century. The World Coalition against the Death Penalty reported that at least 317 people were executed in 2007, and in 2008, as many as 346 executions were documented.

Although the majority of those executed are criminals involved in drug trafficking or individuals who have committed rape and murder, there are still people who wind up on death row for political activism or opposition to the government.

The global momentum to abolish the death penalty might not soon head into Iran, as the country strictly enforces sharia laws, which prescribe capital punishment for major offenses. However, to expect Iran’s judicial processes to be reformed so that the country’s blemished image can be brushed up and gaps between the government and the public are bridged is not a tall order.

Lengthy prison terms or execution decrees for citizens who have differences of opinion with the Islamic Republic leadership or are charged with vague crimes such as acting against national security, espionage for foreign governments or disturbing the public opinion that in many cases remain legally unsubstantiated serve no good cause, rather than portraying Iran as an ultra-conservative nation-state with an intolerant Islamist government.

This is neither helpful to the global standing of Iran nor conducive to praise for the religion it officially promotes.

Saudi Arabia, also a conservative Middle East kingdom, has in recent years reformed and revised many of its judicial processes, and is treading on the path of imparting a more nuanced impression of itself.

It should not be difficult for Iran to replicate Saudi Arabia’s reforms in its local context and come up with improvements in its definitions of crime and transgression, join international pacts such as the United Nations Convention against Torture, to which it is not currently a party, and particularly restructure its approach to what it calls “security crimes,” which is a thinly veiled rewording of “political crimes,” and embrace more moderation and clemency in legal judgments.

A melting pot of subcultures, ethnic groups, religious minorities and lingual communities, blessed with a young, dynamic and educated population, Iran enjoys all the features of a thriving society. Judicial reforms in pursuit of making contemporary Iran a more inclusive, pluralist and tolerant entity are the prerequisite to ensuring this society can unleash all its potentials.

Of course, a new engagement with the international community is the seminal and urgent need of Iran in the realm of foreign policy, about which much has been said in the media and academia.

Saturday, 1 August 2020

US says man gunned down in Pakistani court was American

Source: WTOP News (31 July 2020)

ISLAMABAD (AP) — A man gunned down this week in a Pakistani courtroom while standing trial on a charge of blasphemy was a U.S. citizen, according to a U.S. State Department statement.

Tahir Naseem was “lured to Pakistan” from his home in Illinois and entrapped by the country’s blasphemy laws, which international rights groups have sought to have repealed, the statement issued late Thursday said. It did not elaborate on the circumstances in which Naseem came to be in the South Asian country.

Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy law calls for the death penalty for anyone found guilty of insulting Islam but in Pakistan the mere allegation of blasphemy can cause mobs to riot and vigilantes to commit murder.

“We are shocked, saddened, and outraged that American citizen Tahir Naseem was killed yesterday inside a Pakistani courtroom,” the State Department statement read.

Pakistani officials said Naseem was charged with blasphemy after he declared himself a prophet. Police in northwest Peshawar province originally identified him as Tahir Shameem Ahmed, but later corrected themselves.

There was no immediate comment from Pakistani authorities and the assailant, identified as Khalid Khan, was arrested. It wasn’t clear how he entered the courtroom and managed to get past security with a weapon. Naseem died before he could be transported to a hospital.

“We urge Pakistan to immediately reform its often abused blasphemy laws and its court system, which allow such abuses to occur, and to ensure that the suspect is prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” said the statement issued by Cale Brown, the State Department’s principal deputy spokesperson.

Although Pakistani authorities have yet to carry out a death sentence for blasphemy, there are scores of accused on death row. Most are Muslims and many belong to the Ahmadyya sect of Islam, reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretics.

Besides the State Department, the U.S. Commission on International Freedom condemned the killing.

“Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are indefensible to begin with, but it is outrageous beyond belief that the Pakistani government was incapable of keeping an individual from being murdered within a court of law for his faith, and a U.S. citizen, nonetheless,” Commissioner Johnnie Moore said in a statement.

“Pakistan must protect religious minorities, including individuals accused of blasphemy, in order to prevent such unimaginable tragedies,” Moore said in the statement.

The Commission declared Pakistan a “country of particular concern” in its 2020 report released last month because of its treatment of minorities.

Religious minorities in Pakistan are increasingly under attack even as Prime Minister Imran Khan preaches a “tolerant” Pakistan. Observers warn of even tougher times ahead as Khan vacillates between trying to forge a pluralistic nation and his conservative Islamic beliefs.

A Punjab governor was killed by his own guard in 2011 after he defended a Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was accused of blasphemy. She was acquitted after spending eight years on death row in a case that drew international media attention. Faced with death threats from Islamic extremists upon her release, she flew to Canada to join her daughters last year.