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Capital punishment – a step back in time?

For many, the death penalty may seem redundant and old fashioned. For others, namely the people of Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, executions are almost a daily ritual – an acceptable norm, which only seems to have been strengthened over the past year. 2015 was the golden year of executions – the world saw an extreme rise in executions globally, with the three countries mentioned leading the list along with China. But what has caused this rise in popularity of capital punishment? What events may have caused this surge of executions – is it a cultural pattern or a result of fear?

Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia are responsible for 89% of all recorded executions in 2015, as reported by Amnesty International. In this report, Amnesty International recorded a 54% increase in the number of executions carried out globally in 2015 with at least 1 634 executions, the highest number seen in nearly three decades. In the chart below are the top countries in the world with the most confirmed executions last year. China is believed to top the charts, but it is a difficult country to examine as they classify this information as a state secret. The focus of this article thus lies on the three up-and-runners: Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

Source: Laura Lindström
Source: Laura Lindström

Iran is no stranger to capital punishment. The country is leading the list above with 977 confirmed executions within only a year. The Islamic revolution of Iran in 1979 led to a surge in executions, which peaked at the 1988 massacre where around 5 000 political prisoners were executed under governmental orders. Today Iran is holding on to their tradition, and send people to their deaths for a wide range of offences, many of which do not classify as so called “most serious” crimes which are acceptable according to international law. Examples of punishable acts in Iran include same-sex relations, adultery, political rebellion against the government, theft/burglary, and offences against religion.

Not much has changed in the country over the years regarding death penalty. On paper, public executions and executions of juvenile offenders is banned – the story is rather different in practice however, as reports of public executions by for example stoning, which is also prohibited today, is published regularly. There is thus not much indication that a change regarding the death penalty would take place in Iran anytime soon, at least under the current anti-western theocratic Islamic government.

Pakistan witnessed its highest ever recorded amount of executions last year, with nearly one person executed a day. Capital Punishment was re-introduced in Pakistan in 2014 after a 6 year halt, following the devastating massacre by the Pakistani Taliban where 141 people, mostly school children, at the Army Public School were shot dead in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. The massacre was the initial reason for re-introducing capital punishment in the country, as a means of responding to terrorist acts. The execution ban was eventually however completely lifted concerning all offences classified as severe enough for capital punishment. While Pakistan in 2008 took a step forward with banning executions, they are a living example of the effect fear can have on states.

Candles lit in solidarity at Trafalgar Square, London, for the victims of the Peshawar massacre. Source: Flickr.
Candles lit in solidarity at Trafalgar Square, London, for the victims of the Peshawar massacre. Source: Flickr.

While Saudi Arabia has the least reported executions out of the three, they too have experienced an increase over the past year. Saudi Arabia may not conduct executions as regularly as its neighbors; they do however have a more dramatic approach, using public beheadings. While this method may sound medieval to many, it remains the most popular execution method in the country. Public stonings are also used regularly, mostly in connection to cases of adultery.

Saudi Arabia follows the so called Sharia or Islamic law, which according to common interpretation allows for the death penalty to be used for crimes such as murder, apostasy, crimes against god, and adultery. However, many use the Sharia to justify capital punishment for crimes which are not included in most serious crimes in the Sharia, not to mention international law, such as homosexuality, drug offences, and witchcraft. Unlike other countries with capital punishment, Saudi Arabia is known to not shy away from the execution of juveniles and foreigners publicly, which has given them a lot of negative attention internationally – this has seemingly however not slowed down the execution rate, but rather the opposite.

Four countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2015, which is the highest number of countries to fully abolish the death penalty in one year for almost a decade. Furthermore, the US, which is also on the top 6 list seen in the chart earlier, saw its lowest number of executions since 1991, with 28 death sentences carried out by only 6 states. While this may create a positive image of world developments, we need to remember that at the same time the countries that do still have capital punishment are increasing the amount of executions.

But what is the reason behind this dramatic increase in executions? It may have to do with desperation and fear connected to the growing number of terrorist organizations in the world, or simply with the need to hold on to ancient cultural and religious traditions. No matter the reasons behind it, it is still very much a reality. But is this development something the rest of the world should be concerned about and react to, or should we simply mind our own businesses?

Laura Lindström

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