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Africa Ė a potential success story on the death penalty?
By Netsanet Belay, Amnesty Internationalís Africa Director
Mar 27, 2014, 17:00
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When you work in human rights it is all too rare that you get the chance to report good news. At Amnesty International, most of our days are spent documenting people suffering in often horrific ways Ė poor communities being forcibly evicted in Europe, brutal ethnic violence in the Central African Republic or innocent civilians killed by US drone strikes in Pakistan. The list goes on.


But thankfully, we do sometimes see genuine progress, not least on the issue of the death penalty. We have been campaigning for an end to the death penalty since the 1970s, as we consider it the ultimate cruel and inhuman punishment, and a violation of the fundamental human right to life. Fortunately, most of the world appears to agree with us Ė the last three and a half decades have seen almost uninterrupted progress towards abolition. Today, only about one in ten countries around the world still execute people.


Some of the most promising developments have been in Sub-Saharan Africa. Of the African Unionís 54 member states, 37 are today effectively not applying the death penalty. In the past decade, five more African countries have completely abolished capital punishment.


Today, Amnesty International is releasing its annual report on death penalty developments around the world, and once again there was much to cheer in Africa. Across the continent, many governments took small but significant steps towards ending state-sanctioned killing. In Ghana and Sierra Leone, new constitutions are being drafted that offer real opportunities for abolition. Benin and Comoros are both considering new penal codes that would end the death penalty. Guinea-Bissau ratified, and Angola signed, a key UN treaty aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.


Tanzaniaís Justice Minister Mathias Chikawe summed up many governmentsí opinions well last year when he said: ďA punishment is meant to reform a criminal. The death penalty does not reform anyone, let alone deter crime, as those convicted to die do not get time to contemplate.Ē Even if a draft constitution now considered in Tanzania still allows for the death penalty, statements like this show that there is a genuine debate even in retentionist countries.


But it was not all good news last year Ė in Africa, there is still a small group of countries that cling to the death penalty even as their neighbours are moving forward. Five states executed last year: Botswana, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. In total 64 people were put to death in 2013, an increase of more than half from 2012. This was mainly caused by Somalia, where reported executions jumped from at least six in 2012 to at least 34 last year.


Nigeria stood out as particularly worrying, as the country resumed executions for the first time in seven years. In June, four men were dragged to the gallows and put to death in the southern Edo state. Just a week earlier, President Goodluck Jonathan had effectively given the green light to executions, leaving the countryís more than 1,000 death row prisoners at risk. The resumption seems to have been motivated by the deteriorating security situation in the country, although there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty has any particular deterrent effect on crime and violence compared with prison sentences.


If you dig a bit deeper into the statistics, it is striking just how isolated those countries in Africa that still cling to executions are. Just three Ė Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan Ė accounted for more than 90 per cent of all regional executions in 2013.


There are reasons why so many countries are turning away from the death penalty, slowly but surely Ė some agree with us that it is a human rights violation, pure and simple; others see that the arguments for the death penalty simply do not stand up to scrutiny.


Nigeria is not alone in claiming the death penalty as a quick fix solution to violent crimes; last year this was an argument put forth by countries from the Caribbean to South Asia. But there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty has any unique deterrent effect on crime, as multiple studies across different regions and countries have confirmed.


Some governments use the death penalty as a populist tool to prove that they are ďtough on crimeĒ. It is shocking that politicians play with peopleís lives in this way to gain votes, when they know this is not fact-based but simply appealing to raw emotions, especially in the aftermath of horrendous crimes.


Neither is it true that people executed are only those guilty of the most heinous crimes. Last year, people were executed, among other things, for drug offences and alleged links to political opposition groups. In 2013, people received the death penalty for armed robbery in Kenya, Nigeria and Sudan, even in cases where nobody died.


We are not trying to diminish the suffering of victims of crime or their family members, and governments of course have a duty to protect people from such crimes. But under international standards, offences that do not involve intentional killings cannot lead to the death penalty.


And opposing the death penalty does not mean impunity for criminals. Those found guiltyĖ after a fair judicial process Ė should be punished. But the death penalty is the premeditated and irreversible killing of a prisoner who is already removed from society.


To those governments that still execute, our message is clear Ė you are on the wrong side of history. Whatever the argument is, short-term revenge through the death penalty is never the answer. We urge authorities in Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan and the rest of the world to take this message to heart, and to give us more good news to report on next year.





Press Release 

Death Penalty 2013: Isolated countries behind a rise in executions in Africa

Alarming levels of death penalty use in an isolated group of countries led to a more than 50 per cent rise in executions across Africa in 2013 compared to the year before, Amnesty International found in its annual review of the death penalty.


ďThe vast majority of countries in Africa have moved away from the death penalty, while a small, isolated group continues to cling to state-sanctioned killing,Ē said Netsanet Belay, Amnesty Internationalís Africa Director.


ďThe shocking rise in executions was down to just a few countries, and was all the more disappointing given the real progress towards abolition weíve seen elsewhere in the region in recent years.Ē


Just three countries - Nigeria, Sudan and Somalia - were behind more than 90 per cent of the 64 reported executions carried out in Africa in 2013. They also accounted for-two thirds of all reported death sentences in the region, with dramatic increases recorded in Nigeria and Somalia.


Somalia in particular saw a steep escalation in death penalty use, as recorded executions jumped from at least six in 2012 to at least 34 last year. More than half of all death sentences were carried out in the semi-autonomous Puntland region, often against alleged members of the al-Shabab militant group.


Nigeria resumed executions for the first time in seven years, dragging four men to the gallows in June. Alarming statements by President Goodluck Jonathan had earlier effectively given the green light to a resumption of executions, leaving over 1,000 death row prisoners at risk.


At the beginning of 2014, the regional court of the Economic Community of West African States ordered the Nigerian government to refrain from further executions, and in March the countryís Justice Minister confirmed that the government would respect the ruling.


However, there was progress to report in Africa last year, and the long-term trend towards abolishing the death penalty is clear across the region. More than two-thirds (37) of the African Unionís 54 member states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.


In 2013, as in the previous year, only five countries in the region implemented death sentences Ė roughly one in 10.


During the year many states across Africa took small but significant steps towards abolition. New constitutions being drafted in Ghana and Sierra Leone offer real opportunities to end capital punishment, while both Benin and Comoros are considering new penal codes that would abolish the death penalty for all crimes.


ďIt is a great pity that a few countries let the region down. Most African states have abolished the death penalty in law or practice or are on the road to doing so,Ē said Netsanet Belay.


ďPositive developments in countries across Africa have inspired the global abolitionist movement in recent years. Governments must ensure these hopes are not in vain Ė the increase in executions in 2013 should not be repeated over this year.Ē

© Copyright by Awareness Times Newspaper in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

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