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Middle East: Death Penalty Widely Used

Prague, 31 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The region of the Middle East and Iran is one of the world's leaders for executions because its states -- without exception -- permit the death penalty for serious crimes and, in many cases, political offenses.

The human rights organization Amnesty International lists four countries worldwide as accounting for 84 percent of all the executions the group recorded in 1997, the latest statistics available. Two of them -- Iran and Saudi Arabia -- are in the Middle East region. The other two are China and the United States.

Amnesty International says that death penalties were imposed in most countries of the Middle East in 1997 and are frequently carried out. In addition to executions for criminal offenses, human rights groups annually cite Iraq for executing people for opposing the regime of President Saddam Hussein.

Analysts say the high number of executions in the Middle East and Iran reflect the legal philosophy of their Muslim societies and a widespread readiness by many governments to punish political opponents by execution.

Islamic jurisprudence is based on religious law -- known as Sharia -- which was first codified in Islam's holy book, the Koran, in the 7th century and upon ancient Arab custom. They provide the death penalty for such crimes as murder, violent robbery and adultery. Over the centuries, the region's political leaders have added crimes against the state to the list of acts punishable by death, including treason and drug trafficking.

Shireen Hunter -- an expert on Islamic culture and history at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. -- says a large proportion of those executed in the region today are convicted of politically motivated acts.

"Today, many of the death penalties that we see are actually the product of the modern state system in the Islamic countries and a lot of it [is] really for political crimes and crimes against the state."

Most of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa currently maintain a dual system of Sharia and secular law. Religious courts apply Sharia principally to regulate the affairs of private life -- such as marriage and inheritance -- while secular courts rule more on aspects of social life, such as business matters.

Exceptions to the pattern are rare. Two countries in the Middle East region solely maintain Sharia courts: Saudi Arabia and Iran. Turkey -- which permits solely secular courts -- maintains the death sentence but has not applied it in more than 15 years.

Sharia is sometimes perceived by non-Muslims as inflexibly invoking the death sentence for crimes such as adultery, which other legal systems regard less harshly. But supporters say that Islamic law includes strong rules of evidence which -- when properly applied -- favor defendants. These include requirements that an act of adultery be witnessed by four people known for honesty before an adulterer may be convicted. The punishment for murder, too, is less strict than it often appears. Many countries of the Arabian peninsula provide murderers with the option of paying compensation to their victim's family in lieu of execution. The offer of compensation -- known as "blood money" -- must be approved by the victim's family. The amount is set by the state.

Hanny Migalli -- executive director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, a U.S.-based human rights organization -- says there is currently no significant pressure in the region to abolish the death sentence. But he says there are movements to limit its use for political offenses.

"I think the sticking point is Islamic law. There are movements in some of the countries that call for restrictions on the use of the death penalty, particularly for political crimes. That is, people who will accept that the death penalty applies for crimes such as adultery, highway robbery, etc., will argue that, 'OK, we'll leave it on the statute books for those types of crimes, but it should not be used against political opponents.' "

In some Mideast countries, executions are particularly frequent because they are not only used by regimes against political opponents but also to suppress militant movements. The region is a mosaic of religious sects and ethnic minorities living among rival majorities in states whose borders have changed many times. A large number of the current borders are as recent as this century, when they were drawn by Western powers after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. That fuels a political restiveness that many leaders have routinely used military courts and summary executions to contain.

Hunter of the Center for Strategic and International Studies says the region's states are currently caught between two opposing forces. One is the desire of many groups for greater independence or social change. The other is the desire of powerful leaders and elites to maintain the status quo:

"There is no major Middle Eastern country which is quite immune from these things. So in our new world [there is the question of] how you are going to balance this whole demand for greater minority rights [against] the state's desire to maintain its so-called cohesion."

That power struggle -- Hunter and many other analysts predict -- will ensure that the Middle East continues to be a world-leader in the use of executions as a political tool for many years to come.

(Last of four features on the use of capital punishment in different parts of the world.)