BOSTON — Amnesty International released its annual survey on the use of the death penalty. The report found 18 countries executed people in 2009. China is estimated to have executed the most people, but refused to release an official figure. In the 17 other countries 714 people were executed.
Iran had one of the highest uses of the death penalty in 2009, which is described in a dispatch by Iason Athanasidis.
GlobalPost asked Joshua Rubenstein, Northeast Regional Director of Amnesty International, about the report on the use of the death penalty worldwide.
What is most notable about the new figures on the death penalty?
It is interesting to note how confined the death penalty is. Amnesty International has been doing this survey for 30 years. When we started the majority of countries had the death penalty on their books. Judicial execution was widespread. Today 95 countries have abolished the death penalty. Another nine countries have abolished it for ordinary crimes but use it for war-time crimes like treason. A further 35 countries have stopped using the death penalty — meaning that they have not executed anyone for 10 years or that they have suspended, if not abandoned, the death penalty. So 139 countries of the 192 in the United Nations have abolished or moved away from the death penalty. This is a historic trend.
And there is no question that we have seen a vivid trend away from the death penalty in 2009. In Africa, Burundi and Togo abolished the death penalty. In Europe we saw no executions at all in 2009. Belarus is the only European country to still have the death penalty, and that country did execute someone in the first months of 2010, but Belarus did not execute anyone in 2009. In all the Americas, both North and South, the United States was the only country to use the death penalty. The U.S. executed 52 people in 2009. Of that 24 were in Texas. The use of the death penalty is dwindling.
Where is the death penalty being used?
China leads the world in executions. Amnesty International has refused to publish an exact figure, because the Chinese government has not given us an official figure, saying that it is a state secret. But we know that thousands have been executed in China. In 2008 China executed at least 1,700 people and it is unlikely that number has gone down. If they are using the death penalty, they should be able to make those figures public.
Other countries that do use the death penalty include Iran with 388 by hanging or stoning, Iraq with 120 by hanging, Saudi Arabia with 69 by beheading or crucifixion, and the United States with 52 by lethal injection or electrocution. The U.S. is virtually alone among recognized democracies to use the death penalty.
In Asia the death penalty is decreasing. India occasionally executes people but it did not carry any executions out in 2009. Thailand does occasionally execute people and Japan rarely.
In sub-Saharan Africa only Botswana and Sudan carried out judicial executions in 2009. Kenya commuted the death sentences of 4,000 prisoners who were on death row. That was the largest commutation of death sentences ever known.
When you look at Texas, the 24 executions there would rank it in the top 10 countries.
What is the outlook for 2010?
Saudi Arabia is about to execute a prisoner, a Lebanese citizen for the crime of sorcery. Amnesty International calls for his release, not just commutation of the death sentence but for his release.
In China, people are being executed if they are convicted of economic crimes like theft of state property and corruption.
In Iran we saw a big spike in executions between the June 12 elections and the August inauguration of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Some 100 people were executed in that eight week period. There is no question that there is a political dimension to the use of the death penalty in Iran and there also is in China.
What further changes in the death penalty will Amnesty International press for in the future?
We’d like to see the death penalty abolished completely. Short of that goal, we would like to see fair trials for those who do face the death penalties. Often the accused facing the death penalty are poor and do not have good legal representation. We would like to see that all indigent defendants get effective legal counsel and the resources to have a vigorous defense.
We would like to see the end of the death penalty for non-violent crimes. We will press for an end to the death penalty for non-violent crimes and an end to the execution of people who are connected to the political opposition in their country. In those cases the death penalty is completely disproportionate to the crime.
If a country is going to use the death penalty then we would like to see rigorous safeguards in place to minimize the chances that innocent people are executed. We do not believe that any juveniles under the age of 18 should be executed.