Stopping the Death Penalty Protects Everyone

Even Canadians are at risk while the death penalty remains in this world

This time last year, Toronto resident and Canadian citizen Hamid Ghassemi-Shall, was in an Iranian prison, facing the prospect of execution by a regime that is notorious for use of the death penalty. Hamid was eventually one of the lucky ones. The tireless efforts of his wife Antonella and worldwide appeals by Amnesty International and other human rights organisations and governments making direct appeals to the Iranian government managed to save him from execution and overturn an unjust and fabricated case that could easily have cost him his life.

On 10 October, World Day Against the Death Penalty coincidentally, Hamid returned home to Canada where his wife and supporters gathered at Toronto Pearson Airport to welcome him.

Today, 27 March 2014, Amnesty International has released our Annual Report on the Death Penalty, covering statistics for 2013. Compared to last year there have been some setbacks. A small number of countries resumed executions and due to continued increases in executions in the Middle East, the overall number of executions has seen a rise. However these numbers do continue to be a part of the long term decline in the death penalty. In our immediate neighbour to the south, total executions were again down along with death sentences, and the state of Maryland repealed the death penalty.

At least three people were executed in Saudi Arabia for crimes committed when they were under the age of 18. By international law these are child executions.

Significant points of this year’s report: READ THE REPORT HERE

  • An increasingly isolated group of entrenched executioners, mainly Iran and Iraq, were behind a sharp spike in reported executions in 2013, bucking the global trend of moving away from the use of the death penalty.
  • In Iraq reported executions jumped by almost 30% with 169 people put to death. Iran’s already alarming number of executions was even higher in 2013, with at least 369 officially acknowledged executions and hundreds more executions that were not officially acknowledged.
  • Excluding China, almost 80% of all known executions worldwide were recorded in only three countries: Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia.
  • There were disappointing resumptions of executions in Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Viet Nam. In several cases these executions were carried out in near total-secrecy, with governments essentially trying to hide their human rights abuses from the world.
  • Despite the setbacks, there was progress to be found in all regions of the world. Europe and Central Asia was execution free for the first time since 2009. Three countries in the Greater Caribbean had empty death rows for the first time in years, while another US state, Maryland, abolished the death penalty completely.
  • Across Africa, many states are in the process of reviewing their death penalty laws with the stated goal of abolition.
  • Although progress slowed in 2013, the long-term trend of the world moving away from the death penalty is still clear. In 2013, 22 countries executed. A decade ago in 2004, 25 countries around the world executed; in 1994 that number stood at 37.

This coming December, Canada has yet again been offered the opportunity to finally join with the world’s leadership against the death penalty and co-sponsor a resolution at the United Nations General Assembly. Since 2007 there have been four such resolutions, calling on those countries that have not yet abolished the death penalty, to impose moratoriums on executions with a view to abolition, or at the very least, to abide by international standards and safeguards, such as the right to a fair trial and that where the death penalty is imposed, it is done so only for the most serious of crimes, i.e., intentional crimes involving the loss of life. Violations of such standards and safeguards are frequent – as this year’s report shows – and yet these standards are bare minimum expectations.

Will Canada finally step up and join every other long-term abolitionist country and take the simple step to co-sponsor this resolution?

The end of the death penalty is in sight and Canada should be helping lead the abolition effort, especially by taking steps that cost nothing (co-sponsorship is as simple as a phone call or raising a hand at a meeting). As Hamid’s case shows, Canadian citizens are not protected from facing the death penalty until the world is free of it.

We are fortunate to live in a fully abolitionist country. Many in the world do not. In some countries the public are forced to face it in their streets, as people are hanged or beheaded in the open. People are arrested on bogus crimes – North Korea even executed people for watching a soap opera! The power to kill an imprisoned human being is a power no state should have. There is no such thing as a ‘responsible use of the death penalty.’
There is a moral imperative here. A good analogy is to imagine seeing someone who can’t swim, pushed into a river. While Canada is not pushing anyone into a river, by failing to co-sponsor, we are doing the moral equivalent of not even bothering to call for help as the non-swimmer rushes past in the river.

Canada must stop being a silent witness to this atrocity to human rights. As long as the death penalty continues in this world there is a moral obligation to speak out against it.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime, the guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual, or the method used by the state to carry out the execution.

The death penalty violates the right to life and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.