Shift in attitudes towards death penalty

Shift in attitudes towards death penalty

The global attitude towards the death penalty appears to be shifting, say experts, as more countries either dispense with capital punishment or scale back the crimes it applies to.

While there are no exact figures, human rights group Amnesty International reported at least 778 executions in 2013.

The number represented a 14 per cent rise from 2012, due to a spike in executions in Iran and Iraq, but was markedly lower than the 1,146 executions in 2003.

The death penalty has come under renewed spotlight since a diplomatic row erupted between Australia and Indonesia over Jakarta's decision to go ahead with the execution of two Australian ringleaders of the "Bali Nine" drug smuggling gang.

Experts attribute the declining use of the death penalty to a number of factors, including studies which cast doubt on its deterrent effect against crime, and a change in attitude among citizens as well as the authorities.

Global statistics do not include China, which is secretive about such figures, but Chinese activists say the worldwide trend is being matched in the country.

The Dui Hua Foundation, a non-profit humanitarian organisation based in California, estimated there were 2,400 executions in China in 2013, down from 12,000 in 2002.

"If you aggregate global numbers, the People's Republic of China becomes the tail that wags the dogs," said law professor Frank Zimring of Berkeley University.

Furthermore, about 140 countries - or seven in 10 - either no longer have the death penalty or are not using it, said Amnesty International's death penalty expert Chiara Sangiorgio.

Countries such as Benin, Fiji and Madagascar are in the process of abolishing it.

This is a far cry from 1945, when just eight countries, including Iceland, Panama and Venezuela, had abolished the death penalty.

On the flipside, countries with the highest number of executions in 2013 included China, Iran, Iraq and the United States.

Ms Sangiorgio was quick to add that even in some of these countries, steps have been taken to "restrict the scope or reduce the use of the death penalty".

China in 2011 removed 13 economic and non-violent offences from its list of 68 crimes punishable by death. Singapore revised its death penalty laws in 2012.

"Attitudes are changing all around the world," said Mr Richard Dieter, executive director of the non-profit organisation Death Penalty Information Centre.

The prevailing notion that the death penalty can deter crime is also being challenged. A 2012 study by the US National Research Council concluded that "research to date is not informative about whether capital punishment decreases, increases, or has no effect on homicide rates".

But Mr Kent Scheidegger, legal director at the non-profit Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said that while there is a lot of variation in how studies are set up and interpreted, "the weight of evidence still favours deterrence".

China, Indonesia, Japan and Singapore are among the countries that continue to subscribe to the "deterrent" argument.

In the US, "that used to be the No. 1 reason, but now the reason seems to be that some crimes just deserve the defendant's life to be taken", said Mr Dieter.

As more countries abolish the death penalty, experts agree that the US remains a sticking point. Of its 50 states, 32 still have the death penalty and 63 per cent of Americans favour capital punishment for a convicted murderer, according to a Gallup poll last year.

Meanwhile, countries close to the US are turning up the heat.

"European allies have made it difficult (for the US) to get the drugs for the executions," said Mr Dieter. "They don't want a part in this."

While abolition of the death penalty has gained momentum, some experts do not think the trend will continue.

"The moral intuition of the people of the world that some people deserve to die cannot be erased... I don't think it will die, but I hope it's refined and reserved for only the worst of the worst crimes," said criminal justice professor Robert Blecker, author of the book, The Death Of Punishment.

Others such as Ms Sangiorgio, however, believe the numbers speak for themselves and that "it is just a matter of time before we see a death penalty-free world"


This article was first published on April 28, 2015.
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