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Fewer executions, more death sentences

Maximiliane Koschyk
April 11, 2017

Thousands still die by capital punishment worldwide, according to an Amnesty International report. One US state is planning to carry out a number of executions in a fast-track procedure due to a drug's expiration date.

USA Todeszelle Todesstrafe Giftspritze
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/P. Buck

American Jason McGehee has been imprisoned in the state of Arkansas for almost 20 years. He kidnapped and killed a boy - a crime punishable by death. This verdict was to be carried out at the end of April. Last week, however, a district judge abruptly put the execution on hold.

McGehee is only one of eight men in Arkansas whose executions had been scheduled to be carried out before May 1. At the end of April, a key execution drug - the sedative Midazolam - will be expiring. For Arkansas legal authorities, it was a practical decision. They wanted to use their supplies before they expire. For the eight death row inmates who for years had been facing death penalty enforcement, it was an expiration date for their own lives.

As of December 31, 2016, at least 18,848 people imprisoned worldwide were waiting for their deaths - by hanging, beheading, firing squad, or lethal injection.

Infografik Todesstrafe Amnesty ENG ***SPERRFRIST! Dienstag, 11. April 2017, um 01:01 Uhr MEZ***

Last year, 1,032 people were executed by governments. Those figures were presented by human rights organization Amnesty International in its annual report. This amounts to a reduction of around one-third compared to the previous year. 2015, however, saw more executions than any of the past 25 years.

China's dark figures

Amnesty International publishes its statistics regarding the death penalty on an annual basis; the death sentence is currently abolished in 104 of 198 countries. It remains extremely difficult to obtain verifiable data for the People's Republic of China. The Chinese government treats executions as a state secret. There are official statistics, but they are believed to be heavily sugarcoated. 

The Chinese government merely pretends to be transparent in this regard, according to Amnesty International. "It certainly isn't," said Alexander Bojcevic, a spokesman for the human rights organization. "We are presuming that there is a very high number of unreported and undetected cases." Confirming the trend of previous years, he added, China presumably had executed more people in 2016 than the rest of the world combined.

Infografik Todesstrafe Amnesty ENG ***SPERRFRIST! Dienstag, 11. April 2017, um 01:01 Uhr MEZ***

China is not the only country which keeps its deadly administering of justice under wraps. At the beginning of 2017, information was made public for the first time that indicated the number of executions in Vietnam was much higher than previously estimated. The past three years, that data suggests, saw more than 400 people put to death.

Amnesty highlights a number of equally woeful trends: In 2016, Iran enforced capital punishment on two persons who were minors at the time of the crime. "The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child clearly stipulates that those who are aged under 18 at the time of the crime cannot be subject to capital punishment," says Bojcevic. Since Iran was a signatory of the Convention, it was not allowed to proceed in this manner: "By putting these people to death, Iran violates its obligations under international law."

Relapse and abolition

Even though the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty, or at least have abolished it in practice, has increased,there are always others that become "reoffenders." In Bojcevic's words: "Regrettably, it is not unusual that countries which have refrained from undertaking executions for several years, resume them." According to Amnesty, people were executed in Belarus, Botswana and in the Palestinian territories for the first time after a long hiatus.

Infografik Todesstrafe Amnesty ENG ***SPERRFRIST! Dienstag, 11. April 2017, um 01:01 Uhr MEZ***

In total, 3,117 death sentences were issued last year - 1,119 more than during the previous year. In Nigeria alone, the number of death sentences tripled in 2016. In other African countries like Cameroon, Zambia and Somalia the organization also recorded an increase in executions.

On the other hand, there was, according to Amnesty, also an increasing number of governments which decided to end the death penalty. They include, since 2016, the west African country of Benin, the Pacific island nation of Nauru and the US state of Delaware.

Controversial injection

In Arkansas, the expiration date of a lethal injection drug is now providing short-term relief in the race against time - at least in the case of Jason McGehee. The seven other death row inmates have filed clemency requests as well. The state's "double execution" approach is a controversial one. In the US, executions on that scale have only been undertaken once - in the state of Texas - after the reintroduction of the death penalty in 1976.

USA Liste der acht Gefangene - Giftspritze in Arkansas
Eight death row inmates are scheduled to be executed in ArkansasImage: Reuters/Courtesy Arkansas Department of Corrections

If all of those convicted win their race against the expiration date, it could turn out to be difficult to enforce the sentence at all. Their best bet is the controversy surrounding the Midazolam sedative itself. In theory, it enables the inmate to die as peacefully as possible. But the opposite happened in the case of Clayton Lockett, who was sentenced to death for murder in 2014. After receiving an injection of firstly, Midazolam, and secondly, a lethal poison, Lockett took 43 minutes to die a painful death.

While opponents of the death penalty in the US fight for its abolition, import regulations make its implementation increasingly difficult for its advocates. For a long time, European providers sent supplies to US authorities. Since 2011, however, exporting the sedative is prohibited across all of the European Union. So it is in part due to supply shortages that the US, for the first time since 2006, is a no-show among the five nations that carry out the highest number of executions worldwide.