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Abolition of capital punishment, a bumpy road: cancelled in 102 Countries, upheld in the US, while Turkey and the Philippines are demanding its adoption

A growing number of world Countries have completely abolished it and the UN continues to call for a universal moratorium on executions while Pope Francis reiterated: "there can’t be a true punishment that comes without hope." But on November 8, Nebraska, California and Oklahoma have voted in favour of the death penalty

State murder has not become extinct. In fact, it appears to proliferate in the shadows of populism. While on the one side a few days ago the UN has adopted –within the Third Committee in charge of ensuring the respect for human rights – a new resolution calling for a universal moratorium on execution (with an additional vote compared to the similar resolution submitted two years ago), on the other the death penalty is registering a resurgence of popular consensus in the United States, notably on the same day that marked the presidential election of Donald Trump.

In fact, US citizens, in addition to electing their president are called to cast their votes on over 150 provisions. In Nebraska a majority voted to reinstate capital punishment, abolished by Parliament on May 26 2015, and although have been no executions since 1997, 10 people are currently on death row. Two conflicting “propositions” were presented in California: the first envisaged the abolition of the death penalty, while the second asked to reduce the period separating conviction and execution. The former was rejected and the latter was adopted. It should be noted that California is the US Country with the highest number of convicts on death row (746). Finally, in Oklahoma, which on April 9 2015 introduced the possibility of using nitrogen and a firing squad to kill prisoners sentenced to death in case the lethal injection is not usable, the local population has endorsed the proposal of giving constitutional protection to capital punishment, rejecting the decision of the Attorney General, who last year had suspended executions.

The outcome of the polls in Nebraska, California and Oklahoma show that the United States will continue supporting the death penalty, struggling to grasp the repeated appeals of Pope Francis, who in the Jubilee of Prisoners (November 6) reaffirmed “the importance of reflecting on the need for criminal justice that is not only punitive, but is open to hope and to the prospect of reinserting the offender into society”, adding – November 20 at Tv2000 network – that “there can’t be a true punishment that comes without hope.”  “If a penalty doesn’t have hope – Bergoglio said – it’s not a Christian penalty, it’s not human.” That is why capital punishment is wrong.

Last year, speaking before members of Congress in Washington, the Pope explicitly demanded the “global abolition of the death penalty” since “every life is sacred” echoing the appeal of the US bishops, and offering “support to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.”

However, only 18 US States have abolished the death penalty, while 32 maintain it (albeit among them Colorado, Kansas, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Wyoming have not carried out executions for the past 10 years). According to the annual report of Amnesty International, in 2015, 28 executions were carried out (13 in Texas, six in Missouri, five in Georgia, two in Florida, one in Oklahoma and one in Virginia), while courts issued 52 death sentences. At the end of 2015, 2,851 people were on death row.


From a broader perspective, reporting data for 2015 Amnesty denounced that compared to 2014 “numbers rose by 54%, with at least 573 more people killed than in 2014”, with at least 1.634 put to death worldwide (573 more compared to the previous year) “the highest number of executions in a quarter century”, without counting China, whose figures on the death penalty are a State secret (estimated at several thousand per year).

89% of all executions has taken place in three States only: Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.  

On the opposite front – namely, support for the abolition of death penalty – Amnesty is optimistic about the “worldwide trend.” In fact while in 1977 only 16 countries had abrogated it completely, in 2015 as many as 102 Countries (including the Republic of Congo, Fiji, Madagascar and Suriname) had abolished the death penalty, while “many other countries have not carried out executions for more than a decade, or have given clear indication that they are moving towards a total abolition.” Hence, “those that continue to execute are an increasingly isolated minority.”

Although they go against the general trend, US decisions have an impact, as do the claims made in recent months by the presidents of Turkey and the Philippines.

On the wake of the failed coup of July 15 2016, Turkey has been experiencing a dramatic “purge” decided by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that started with the military hierarchy and extended to civil servants, magistrates, journalists, with strong limitations to individual freedoms, the proclamation of a state of emergency and the temporary suspension of the European Convention for the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Against the backdrop of a seriously jeopardized democracy – to use a euphemism – at the doors of Europe, stands out the determination of the Turkish President to reinstate capital punishment, if voted by a parliament majority (where members of the opposition are experiencing purges.) Likewise, Rodrigo Duterte, elected last May President of the Philippines and accused by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, to be a potential dictator, took a similar stand. With the declared aim of combating drug trafficking, Duterte has sent death squads (that include police officers) to patrol the streets. The death squads carry out daily murders of suspects without trials or possibility of defense, while in the aftermath of his election the Philippine president declared his intention to ask “Congress to reinstate the death penalty by hanging” – abolished in the Country in 2006 – for drug trafficking, rape, murder and theft.

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