“Everyone has the right to freedom and security of his person” (art.9). The ratification of the second protocol (1989) of the UN International Convenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) by 85 states constituted a decisive political-institutional transition for the abolition of the death penalty in the world. The objectives achieved so far in the field of protection of fundamental rights and the common commitment against all forms of denial of human dignity, demonstrate the effectiveness of the action taken by the World Coalition Against Death Penalty (WCADP, established in Rome in 2002). Advocacy coalition, media campaigns, dialogue with decision-makers are taking concrete effects in the abolition of capital punishment, today banned, altogether or in force, only for serious crimes, in 106 countries in the world (more than two in three). In 2017, as evidenced by the latest annual report published by Amnesty International, the number of executions has dropped to below 1000 (993 in 23 countries, down 39% compared to 2015). “If, as we believe this trend will continue – as declared by Riccardo Noury, spokesman for Amnesty Italy, at Corriere della Sera – in five or six years the big question is no longer whether countries will abolish the death penalty but only when they do>>.
However, non-compliance with international human rights treaties continues to perpetuate in the Middle East and Asia. China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Pakistan explicitly violate the provisions of article 6 of the aforementioned UN Covenant, by implementing a death sentences for crimes related to the possession and sale of drugs – provided, on the contrary, “only for very serious crime” (paragraph 2). In 2017, the changes in some countries to the legislative framework on drugs caused mixed effects: the number of death sentences for these crimes fell in Iran (40% of total executions compared to 60% in 2016) and in Indonesia (70% versus 77% in the previous year), while almost doubled in Singapore (8 executions in 2017, double that of 2016) and Saudi Arabia (from 14% in 2016 to 40% in 2017).
China, the “black book” of the death penalty
“We [the Chinese People’s Party] are currently working to achieve the following objectives […], improve the judiciary, abolish the death penalty and abolish corporal punishment“. These are the conclusions contained in a document dated 15 June 1922. Over the next hundred years, regulatory actions on State secrets have aggravated the opacity that Human Rights Watch (State Secrets: China’s Legal Labyrinth) and Amnesty International (China deadly secrets) found in the People’s Republic of China, the country that executes most of the death sentences in the world. The NGOs denounce the absence of hundreds of cases documented by online judicial registers: only between 2014 and 2016, according to data provided by the Chinese media, 931 death sentences were executed, of which only 85 made known in China Judgments Online, the database of the Supreme People’s Court.
Scheduled for 46 types of crime, the death penalty is mostly imposed in cases of murder and drug trafficking (estimated 11 executions in 2017): the story of Nie Shubin, acquitted in 2016 after being sentenced to death in 1995 with the accusation of kidnapping and voluntary crime. This execution has shaken Chinese public opinion, worried by the sentences issued against many innocent citizens (4 acquittals last year), prompting the Chinese authorities to issue “circulars aimed at strengthening the safeguards on the due process“, as reported by Amnesty.
Africa: capital punishment, transversal problem
Despite the fragmentation in national legal systems, the number of African countries abolitionists (currently 20), has increased over the past two decades: so far only 12 countries out of 54 have ratified the UN Covenant and some are only signatories (Angola and Gambia), but “the progress made in sub-Saharan Africa has strengthened its position as a “symbol of hope” for the abolitionist movement” – commented Salil Shetty, Amnesty International’s Secretary General.
Not only legislative commitments follow this direction: the Declaration issued by the latest African Regional Congress against the death penalty (9 and 10 April this year) puts the protection of the right to life at the center, asking the international organizations, “to continue and intensify cooperation with States and civil society“, as well as “to engage in awareness and education for the public“, noting that “the fight against terrorism is diverted to extend the scope of the death penalty“.
Denial of rights in the Middle East
Death penalty, especially in North Africa and the Middle East, is the culmination of the violation of human rights: “in cases of capital punishment – underlined the Amnesty report -, fundamental guarantees on the due process were absent and the courts often based on “confessions” extracted under torture to inflict death sentences“. Glaring cases of denial of human dignity, like the summary execution of Yussuf Ali al-Mushaikhass, accused of terrorism for taking part in some anti-government protests in 2011-12 in Saudi Arabia or dozens of sentences imposed for religious crimes (blasphemy charges and “corruption on earth“) in Iran and for political crimes in Egypt. “At least 264 death sentences executed – the document continues – were issued for drug-related crimes“, the highest number in the world. At the end of 2017, 21,919 sentenced to death remained awaiting execution. <<Death penalty does not serve the victims and has no deterrent effect on crimes>>, UN Secretary-General António Guterres reiterated last October, speaking at the “Transparency and the death penalty” conference.