London, 17 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amnesty International launched a campaign this week to try to secure a worldwide ban on the use of capital punishment to mark the millennial year 2000.
The worldwide human-rights group is focusing on the four countries that accounted for 80 percent of all executions last year: China, the United States, Iran, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The campaign was launched yesterday to coincide with the publication of Amnesty International's annual report.
Amnesty International Secretary-General Pierre Sane told reporters that what he called the premeditated killing of defenseless people should not be condoned by any society. He said the use of capital punishment violates the most basic of all human rights -- the right to life itself -- and has no place in today's world.
More than 100 countries have now formally or informally abandoned the use of capital punishment. They were joined in 1998 by Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Estonia and Lithuania, which abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan both instituted moratoria on the death penalty last December.
But Amnesty International spokesman Olivier Jacoulet says the organization remains concerned because some 40 countries still resort to the death penalty:
"The more countries that can ban the death penalty, the better it will be for humanity as a whole."
Amnesty International has long pressed for the abolition of the death penalty in Ukraine, where at least 345 prisoners remained under sentence of death at the end of last year, and in Russia, where the figure was 900 prisoners. But no executions have been reported in Russia since 1996.
Recently, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced a "de facto" abolition of capital punishment, a move welcomed by Amnesty spokesman Jacoulet:
"We are very pleased that Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president, has de facto abolished the death penalty. This is a good example to be exported to the U.S., where today they plan to execute a young man who is accused of a horrible crime committed when he was 17 years old. So the U.S. is the only country in the world to kill people for a crime committed when they were a juvenile."
Amnesty says an international consensus is growing that, at the very least, minors, the old and the mentally ill should be excluded from execution. But it says the U.S. executed a total of three juvenile offenders last year, the first such cases since 1993.
Amnesty says the U.S. is the only advanced western nation to use the death penalty. A total of 68 prisoners were executed last year in 18 U.S. states. More than 3,500 people remained on death row in the U.S. at the end of last year.
In the past, individual U.S. state authorities, which control executions, have rejected criticism by human rights groups that capital punishment is inherently unfair by coming down disproportionately hard on members of minorities or the disadvantaged.
Amnesty cites two cases of executions in the southern state of Texas of youths from abusive homes, both of whom suffered from brain damage and limited intelligence when they committed murders as 17-year-olds.
In China, Amnesty says the number of offenses punishable by the death penalty is now about 60. They include fraud and tax evasion. Amnesty estimates that at least 1,657 people were sentenced to death in China last year and that 1,067 executions were carried out.
In Iran, the death penalty continues to be widely used and is often imposed, Amnesty says, for vaguely worded offenses, including political offenses and those relating to freedom of belief. It says the sentences are frequently imposed after unfair trials. It says scores of executions -- including some carried out in public -- were reported in Iran, although Amnesty says the true figures may be much higher.
And Amnesty says thousands of people were extra-judicially executed last year in the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa, the scene of an ongoing conflict between government forces and armed opposition groups.