The Death Penalty: Not a Dead Issue

Adultery, fraud, treason, blasphemy, sorcery, drugs-smuggling, arson. All offences for which, depending on where you live, what you did, who your father was and what colour your skin is, you can be injected, stoned, hung or beheaded completely legitimately, with the cold authority of the state. You don’t even have to have committed any of the above; you can be killed for planted evidence or even no evidence at all, under the lies of the prosecutor or a confession beaten out of you. And you can languish on death row for 20 years waiting for the day to come when they give you a number and a bare cross, or dump you in a ditch. People might even watch.

Iran, Iraq, USA were the most prolific executing countries in 2012 after China, whose figures on the death penalty are regarded as a state secret – meaning there are believed to be thousands killed every year that we don’t even know about.

With Belarus as the only European country still attached to the death penalty, you’d be forgiven for thinking the UK exempt from the issue, as a country elevated above and distanced from the practice of institutionalised killings. Everyone has a right to life (Article 3, 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights), and everyone has the right not to be tortured, or subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment (Article 5). Can we truly respect these crucial values, knowing that elsewhere they are systematically broken? Surely “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (Martin Luther King Jr.).

There are few more perverted abuses of human rights than fiddling with someone’s end date. Hakamada Iwao, now 77, is the longest serving death row inmate having waited 45 years, with many of those years in solitary confinement. According to Japanese practice, an inmate has no known death date – for Iwao, every morning could be his last.

Despite the horrific abuse between death sentence and death punishment, even if you firmly believe victims need vengeance, even if you deny the evidence of the death penalty’s failure to deter and even if you believe there exist crimes that only death can rectify, people are flawed, bigoted and corrupt, thus contaminating even the most rigorous justice system with errors – deliberate, as well as accidental. An execution is an error that can’t be undone.


Yet this is without considering that the majority of countries using the death penalty operate executions under already skewed justice systems, for political convenience, using unreliable evidence, or for crimes unworthy of the word criminal. In China, there are 55 capital offences, including fraud, jailbreaking and embezzlement. In Africa, Mauritania, Sudan, northern Nigeria and southern Somalia, you can be killed just for being gay. Only last year, North Korea publically executed around 80 people, many for watching smuggled TV shows. In Iran and Iraq, two of the largest executing counties, frequently death sentences are carried out based on ‘confessions’, a strategy otherwise known as beating the accused until they sign their own death warrant.

Yet it isn’t just far flung, lesser developed judicial systems that get it wrong. In the USA, 142 former death row inmates have been exonerated; that’s one innocent inmate released for every ten that have been executed. Indeed, plea-bargaining, poor or unreliable representatives and even the location of the crime create a lottery effect of who lives and who dies. In many states, the colour of your skin is a matter of life or death: of those sentenced to death in 2012, 60% were of ethnic minorities, a group making up just 36% of the population.

The death penalty should not be condoned for any crime, be it homicide or homosexuality. Whether or not a person is guilty or innocent, blood-thirsty or remorseful, sick or misguided, the absolute degradation of personhood that constitutes a systematic killing on behalf of the state is an offense against human rights the modern world should not be willing to tolerate, let alone contemplate.

Bronte Philips

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