Prague, 5 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Anyone contemplating committing a capital crime should take care to avoid doing so in China, Iran, Vietnam and the United States. Accused wrongdoers in those four countries are more likely to be executed legally than anywhere else in the world.
So says the England-based non-governmental human rights group Amnesty International. Amnesty has been combating capital punishment for about 30 years:
That's Eva Dobrovolna, an Amnesty International spokesperson in Prague, says that Amnesty and other groups have joined to fight for a worldwide convention banning the death penalty.
Amnesty says the official number of people legally executed last year was 3,797 -- very nearly a 25-year record.
Legally executing people convicted of crimes dates back to pre-history. Modern distaste for this form of judicial punishment began in the 18th century with the writings of intellectuals like Voltaire. Venezuela abolished capital punishment in 1863. Since then, 119 other countries have ceased to execute criminals. That total takes in Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey, all of which dropped the death penalty last year.
Yet, says Amnesty International in its annual death penalty report for 2004, the official number of people legally executed last year was 3,797 -- very nearly a 25-year record.
The most voracious executioner, Amnesty says, was China. The report says that officials there presided over the execution of at least 3,400 people in 2004. Thus China killed nine of every 10 people in the world formally sentenced to death and executed for crimes.
Far behind came Iran, with at least 159 executions. Next was Vietnam, with 64, and then the United States with 59. The report says that, except for the United States, these numbers represent a minimum estimate because n-o-t all legal executions are recorded.
Amnesty has been campaigning to make Europe and Central Asia a capital punishment-free zone. The European Union and the Council of Europe, among other institutions, are active foes of execution as an accepted punishment. But Dobrovolna says Belarus and Uzbekistan stand in the way of completing such a zone:
She says that "the only country in Europe that is still coming out [with] executions is Belarus, and we reported five executions there just last year."
Uzbekistan, she noted, is no better and, as with Belarus, many of its cases are kept out of official records:
"In the year 2004 we reported executions in Uzbekistan," she says. "We documented at least four executions there and at least 50 people were sentenced to death. What I would like to stress is that the criminal justice system in Uzbekistan -- as well as Belarus -- provides opportunities for judicial errors. So we have information that people are sentenced to death in unfair trials, also on the basis of confessions extracted through torture."
Tamara Chikunova of the Uzbek NGO, Mothers against the Death Penalty and Torture, says that the plight of death-row prisoners there is reminiscent of Nazi death camps:
"After a person is sentenced to death his or her rights are immediately reduced by Uzbek law," she says. "In fact, that person has no rights any more. Under the law, relatives have the right to visit him or her once a month. Also, I want to say that a person on death row in Uzbekistan is clothed in a striped uniform immediately after the sentence has been pronounced. You will remember from movies that people wore striped grey-and-white clothes and striped caps in [Nazi] death camps. People sentenced to death [in Uzbekistan now] wear the exact same clothes."
In the United States, death penalty laws vary from state to state. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last month that people who were under 18 years old when they committed the crime for which they are being punished may n-o-t be executed. The court's decision is binding across the country. It removes the United States from the small club of nations that execute child offenders. Amnesty's report says that Iran executed at least three child offenders last year.
The late Pope John Paul II for many years favored language upholding the right of the state to execute criminals in cases of what the church called "extreme gravity."
In 1997, the pope dropped the "extreme gravity" clause from the church's teaching. Two years later, on a trip to the United States, he brought out unqualified opposition to judicial execution for any reasons. The dignity of human life should never be taken away, he said, "even in the case of someone who has done great evil."