Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Human Rights: Global trends toward eliminating capital punishment continues

Amnesty International (AI) reported today that the global trend toward eliminating capital punishment continued in 2008 and that "[t]here is increasing evidence that the United States itself is slowly turning away from the death penalty."

AI's new report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2008, which provides a global overview of the death penalty, found that only 25 out of the 59 countries that retain the death penalty executed in 2008. In the United States, only nine of the 36 states that retained the death penalty in 2008 actually carried out executions, and the vast majority of these executions took place in one region: the South. Texas accounted for, in essence, half (18 of 37) of the U.S. executions in 2008.

"Executions in the United States are increasingly a regionally isolated phenomenon. Elsewhere, concerns about cost, the possibility of executing the innocent and racial bias have led to a significant decline in support for capital punishment," said Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, director of AIUSA's Death Penalty Abolition Campaign. On March 18, 2009, New Mexico became the 15th state to become death penalty-free as a result of these concerns. Currently Nebraska, New Hampshire, Colorado and Montana are considering a variety of abolition bills.

Amnesty International's report disclosed that executions are also a regional phenomenon at the international level, as the vast majority of executions in 2008 occurred in Asia and the Middle East. Europe and Central Asia are now virtually free of the death penalty -- with the exception of Belarus. The United States is the only country in the Americas that consistently executes. In December of 2008, St. Kitts and Nevis carried out the first execution in the Americas outside the United States since 2003. There were only two recorded executions in sub-Saharan Africa in 2008, though at least 362 people were sentenced to death.

The report found that between January and December 2008, at least 2,390 people were executed around the world with at least 8,864 sentenced to death in 52 countries. China remained the world's leading executioner by a wide margin, accounting for at least 1,718 executions -- near three-quarters of all executions -- although the figure is believed to be much higher as statistics on death sentences and executions remain state secrets. As in previous years, the United States was also one of the world's top executing nations, behind only China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Together, the five countries accounted for 93% of all documented executions worldwide.

"While it is rewarding to see the United States progressing toward death penalty abolition, the United States should be at the forefront of this movement, not bringing up the rear," said Gunawardena-Vaughn.

The report addresses the discriminatory manner with which the death penalty was often applied in 2008, with a disproportionate number of sentences handed down to the poor, and to members of racial, ethnic or religious minority communities in countries such as Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. It also discusses the continuing risk of executing the innocent, as highlighted by the four prisoners released from death rows in the United States on grounds of innocence. The four were Kennedy Brewer (Mississippi), Glen Edward Chapman (North Carolina), Levon "Bo" James (North Carolina) and Michael Blair (Texas).

Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 2.2 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.

Source: Amnesty International
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
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