Alarming New Trend: Countries Increasingly Using Death Penalty to Fight Terrorism and Instability

Human Rights

In a disturbing new trend, countries around the world are using the death penalty to tackle terrorism and internal instability, according to a new report by Amnesty International. Over all, worldwide, approximately 500 more death sentences were recorded in 2014 compared with 2013, Amnesty reports, with the biggest jumps occurring in Egypt and Nigeria. Part of the reason for this trend, the international human rights monitor reports, is the increase in the use of mass sentencing in those countries, both of which are experiencing a great deal of political instability and internal strife.

China remains the world leader in applying the death penalty, carrying out more executions last year than all of the countries in the world combined, according to the report. (China also has 1.3 billion people, roughly four times that of the U.S. population.) Just how many people China executes is unclear, since the country does not release the exact figures. Amnesty has reason to believe that thousands were executed last year. 

In many cases, the Chinese government uses the death penalty to suppress political dissent in the country. This is most prevalent in its “Strike Hard” campaign against unrest in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, where authorities claim ethnic Uighurs fighting for independence are responsible for much of the violence and terrorism in the region, according to the Wall Street Journal. At least 21 people Chinese authorities claim were connected to violence were executed last year. Three were condemned to death at a mass sentencing in a stadium filled with thousands of spectators. Many of the convictions were imposed after unfair trials and for non-lethal acts. For example, 8 percent of recorded executions were for drug-related crimes. Fifteen percent of all executions were for economic crimes, including embezzlement, counterfeiting and bribery.  

The other top nations for executions are Iran (289 officially), Saudi Arabia (at least 90), Iraq (at least 61) and the U.S. (35). The number of people executed in the U.S. last year was down slightly from the year before when 39 were killed. 

China is not the only country to use the death penalty in response to what it considers to be national threats. In North Korea, information on the exact number of executions carried out in 2014 is limited, but Amnesty International believes at least 50 people were executed. The number is likely much higher. Those executed were likely convicted for “crimes” like watching banned foreign shows and films, “womanizing,” and corruption. Even members of the Central Administrative Department of the Workers Party of Korea were not spared. North Korean authorities reportedly amended the Criminal Code to make such acts as illegal phone contact with foreigners punishable by death.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lifted a six-year moratorium on civilian terrorism-related offenses in December in response to an attack on a school that left 149 people dead, with 132 of the victims being children. Seven people were executed in less than two weeks under the Anti-Terrorism Act.

Jordan uses the death penalty as a deterrent to tackle rising crime rates. The Indonesian government announced plans to use the death penalty against drug traffickers to address a public safety “national emergency.”

Another disturbing development is that Israel called for the death penalty to be reinstated last year. The death penalty was abolished for ordinary crimes in 1954. Yisrael Katz, minister of transportation, said in May that the death penalty should be used as a deterrent for Palestinian prisoners. Housing minister Uri Ariel echoed the same call, saying the death penalty should be used for terrorists.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, there was a 28 percent decrease in the number of known executions, compared to 2013. Three countries in the region carried out at least 46 executions, according to the report: Sudan (23-plus), Somalia (14-plus), and Equatorial Guinea (nine).

While no one was officially executed in Nigeria last year, 659 people were sentenced to death. Most of those sentences were connected to murder and armed robbery charges.

The United States continues to be the only country in the Americas to impose the death penalty in 2014. 

There were 35 executions in the U.S. in 2014, a slight drop from 39 the previous year. Seven states—Arizona, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Missouri, Ohio and Texas—carried out the executions; Texas, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma were responsible for 89 percent of them. Seventy-two death sentences were announced in 2014, Florida and Texas leading the way with 11 each. As of October 2014, 3,035 people are on death row. Most are in California (745). Texas has 276 death row inmates and Florida has 404. In Utah, there has been a push to bring back firing squads.

But on the positive side, the state of Washington announced a moratorium on the death penalty in February. And there has been a major moral push from influential pharmaceutical organizations to discourage the practice of the death penalty. The American Pharmacist Association has asked its 62,000 members, which includes pharmacists, pharmaceutical scientists, student pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, to stop selling execution drugs to states, according to NPR. States like Texas have experienced severe shortages of execution drugs as a result.

All in all, 18 states have abolished the death penalty and 32 retain it. Amnesty sees some glimmers of hope in the U.S. that the tide of public opinion is turning against the death penalty.

In other countries in the Americas, the Barbados has begun legislative procedures to end the mandatory death penalty. In Suriname, legislation has been introduced to remove the death penalty from the criminal code. No new death sentences were announced in Jamaica or St. Kitts and Nevis.

In another hopeful development, 20 countries carried out executions last year; in 1995, Amnesty recorded executions in 42 countries, a drop the organization sees as a world trend in moving away from the death penalty.

As of Dec. 31, 2014, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in practice or by law.

Read the full 2015 report on executions around the world in 2014.

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