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World: Death Penalty On The Decline, Despite High-Profile Cases

  • Don Hill

In Europe, a decision by Turkey to outlaw the death penalty in times of peace may have, in effect, commuted the capital sentence for Kurdish rebel leader Abdullah Ocalan. In the United States, the execution of a Mexican citizen last week sparked international protests, as has a Nigerian court's decision to sentence a woman to death by stoning. These cases have focused renewed attention on the practice of capital punishment, which is still in use in many countries of the world. But as RFE/RL reports, analysts of the practice say it actually has been in gradual decline since the end of World War II.

Prague, 20 August 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turkey's most notorious inmate, Abdullah Ocalan, received this month what may be, in effect, a political reprieve from execution.

Convicted murderer Javier Suarez Medina, a Mexican living in the U.S. state of Texas, was less fortunate. Texas authorities ignored international outcries and executed him by lethal injection last week.

A court in Nigeria yesterday upheld a Sharia-law sentence of death by stoning in the case of an unwed mother. A judge said the stoning will be delayed until the 31-year-old mother has weaned her 8-month-old daughter, which may not be for another two years.

These three recent cases have focused renewed attention on capital punishment, which is still used in many countries of the world. But analysts of the practice say it actually has been in gradual decline since the end of World War II.

Virginia Wenzel, a researcher for the London-based human-rights group Amnesty International, believes that postwar international declarations of human rights and the leadership of Europe's intergovernmental human-rights organization, the Council of Europe, are the principal causes. "There are now 111 countries in the world that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. And 74 countries are abolitionist for all crimes. Fifteen have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes. And 22 can be considered abolitionist in practice in that they have not executed anyone for 10 years or more," Wenzel said.

Wenzel said, however, that the trend so far has passed by China, Japan, the United States, and many Muslim countries. "The world leader [in executions], far and away, is China. China executed...well, 90 percent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the U.S.A.," Wenzel said.

Eighty-four countries retain and use the death penalty, although not all of them perform executions regularly.

In the United States, each of the 50 states mandates its own approach. Some have abolished executions by statute or in practice, others have declared a moratorium, while others still utilize it. The leading U.S. state for executions is President George W. Bush's home state of Texas.

Efforts to convince countries to abolish the practice continue. A Council of Europe delegation visited Japan this summer and held a workshop on abolishing the death penalty there.

The delegation came away with the impression that it had made headway. The delegation's leader, Renate Wohlwend, said the fact that a measure to abolish the death penalty is now wending its way through South Korea's legislative process seems to be arousing Japan's competitive instincts.

In an interview with RFE/RL, she recalled the attitude the delegation sometimes receives during its missions. "Some Americans and also Japanese people said: 'But why do you want to put your eye only on us? There are [many] more executions and very tough living conditions [for] people in Asia, in the Far East, in the Muslim countries, [and in] Africa,'" Wohlwend said.

The answer, she said, is that the Council of Europe opposes capital punishment everywhere but believes it has more influence in countries such as the United States and Japan, which have observer status or other connections with the council. She said some of her council colleagues are seeking dialogue with Muslim countries in North Africa, but that this is more difficult. "It is not so easy for us to go [to the Middle East and North Africa], as they have no cooperation with the Council of Europe," Wohlwend said.

In Turkey's case, it is Ankara's drive to join the European Union that is behind its semiabolition of the practice.

When Turkish officials captured Ocalan, the former leader of a now defunct faction of Kurdish rebels, in 1999, sentiment ran high for his quick execution. Turks blame his faction, the PKK, for the deaths of an estimated 35,000 people in guerrilla actions from 1984 to 1999.

The Turkish parliament's decision to abandon the death penalty may now spare Ocalan that fate. But this is uncertain, as Ocalan's crimes might fall under the treason or near-war exceptions, and some nationalist leaders are still seeking his execution.

In the United States, the Council of Europe was one of numerous international bodies to plead in vain with authorities in Texas last week to set aside the death penalty in the case of Medina. He confessed to shooting a Dallas undercover drug agent to death in 1988.

Mexico, and many anti-death-penalty crusaders, protested that Medina was never told of his right as a Mexican citizen to seek assistance from the Mexican Consulate in his defense. Some 16 other countries filed court briefs or wrote letters pleading for clemency for Medina, including Poland, Switzerland, Brazil, and Argentina.

The Medina execution disappointed Wohlwend, who said she has crusaded for years against capital punishment. She is currently vice president of the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. "You have to be personally engaged. And there are many of us in the Council of Europe who...again and again work on [the abolition of the death penalty] and try to convince parliamentarians and people in the street in countries that have not yet put away the death penalty," Wohlwend said.

"The Council of Europe will not give up," she added.