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'Still a way to go'

Interview: Sarah Steffen
October 1, 2013

Recently, Maryland became the 18th US state to abolish the death penalty. Other states and countries still allow the practice. China allegedly executes thousands per year, says Amnesty International's Jan Erik Wetzel.

A room being prepared for executing the death penalty by lethal injection (photo: Paul Buck)
Image: picture-alliance /dpa/dpaweb

Maryland is the latest US state to abolish the death penalty - a bill signed into law earlier this year by Democratic governor Martin O'Malley came into effect on October 1. The last execution in the southern state was in 2005.

DW: How many countries still enforce the death penalty compared to those which have abolished it?

Jan Erik Wetzel: Ninety-seven countries in the world have abolished the death penalty completely, in law, for all crimes, 140 in total have abolished it either in law or in practice. That's 70 percent of the world's countries. In contrast to that, only 21 countries have enforced the death penalty both in 2012 and 2011, and therefore carried out the death penalty. That is only a very small minority of 10 percent of countries in the world - and this minority continues to shrink almost year-on-year, but certainly in the last decade.

Many countries still do sentence people to death, but then choose to not carry out the sentence and instead commute it to life without parole - so why not abolish the practice altogether?

First of all, quite often the death penalty isn't commuted at all, leaving those people on death row in complete uncertainty whether at some point they will actually be executed. Because as we've seen over the past 12 months, countries may actually resume executions at any point.

But the main point in retaining the death penalty on the books - or even with death sentences - is that governments either claim there's a popular mandate - that the popular opinion is in favor of the death penalty - or that it deters crime. None of which is correct if you look at it closely.

(photo: Roland Weihrauch dpa/lnw)
Death by hanging is one of the execution proceduresImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The strongest argument against the death penalty seems to be that innocent people could end up being convicted - and ultimately killed - for crimes they didn't commit. For instance, in the case of Maryland, DNA evidence exonerated former death row inmate Kirk Bloodsworth who then was released from prison after eight years. Do you know of similar cases?

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, whether the person is innocent or guilty. If the person is guilty, after a fair trial, he or she should be given a prison sentence that is commensurate with the crime conducted. The death penalty is never applicable, because there should never be an end to hope for that particular prisoner.

We do know that since 1973 over 140 people have been exonerated in the US. However, only 18 of these have been exonerated due to DNA evidence showing and proving innocence. So DNA is not really the solution to all of this either. Quite often faulty witness statements, quite often police brutality [have] contributed to death sentences and unfair trials. So we think if these various mistakes want to be avoided, the death penalty needs to be abolished as such.

Kirk Bloodsworth with his wife (photo: Creig Beaghler dpa)
Bloodsworth in 2003 - he was on death row for rape and murder charges which he didn't commitImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Can you say how many executions were carried out last year?

Amnesty International knows of 682 executions carried out in 2012, which is pretty much the same number as in 2011 - 680. However, this does not count China. We do not know precise numbers. Therefore, we have to say that all our numbers are just minimum numbers that we [were able to] confirm in our independent research, and without figures from China - where we assume every year thousands are executed.

Why is China so reluctant to release capital punishment figures?

The use of the death penalty is shrouded in secrecy in China. One of the problems is there are quite a few crimes that are capital - eligible for the death penalty. There are about 55 crimes, including drug trafficking and major corruption.

Also, quite often the person on trial doesn't actually get a fair trial. You can see that in China almost 100 percent of people put on trial will actually be sentenced. There is an almost 100 percent conviction rate, which just shows these trials in a large number are faulty.

If China wants to be more transparent in the death penalty, it also would have to be more transparent with regard to all these fair trial issues.

Which countries carry out most of the death penalties?

With the qualifications I just mentioned where we don't have a specific number - China. Second by a far margin is Iran, followed by Iraq and Saudi Arabia. And apart from China, Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia actually carry out three-quarters of all known and confirmed executions in the world, according to last year's figures. In fifth place is the only Western country that still executes on a large scale - that's the US.

But even in the US - you've mentioned the Maryland example - the death penalty is being limited, more and more states abolish, fewer executions are carried out every year. Less death sentences are imposed every year as well.

What's the situation like in Africa? Sudan seems to have sentenced numerous people to death.

Last year we counted quite a few death sentences and executions in Sudan, which implies there seems to be a rise. On the other hand, we don't have access - Amnesty International hasn't been allowed access to Sudan since 2006. And since South Sudan actually became independent, we don't have an independent monitoring organization like the United Nations present in Sudan anymore. So it's quite difficult to say what is realistic - the higher numbers we found for 2012 or the lower numbers we found before that.

symbol lethal injection (photo: Bilderbox)
The US uses lethal injections to execute death row inmatesImage: BilderBox

Overall, the African situation is quite good. Last year, Ghana and Benin and Sierra Leone all either didn't impose death sentences - certainly no executions - and made very strong moves to actually abolish the death penalty, which could happen this year or maybe next year. Six African countries voted in favor of a UN resolution for a moratorium of executions, six more African countries than in the past.

On the other hand, we have negative information not only from Sudan but also from Gambia and Nigeria, which actually resumed executions respectively in August 2012 and most recently in June 2013. So this year we will probably have more executions in Africa than in previous years.

When you've been denied access to the country, as in the case of Sudan, where do you get the numbers from?

We try to confirm information that we receive from various NGOs that are on the ground, we are in contact with lawyers who work on relevant cases. Every year, we do write to every government that still retains the death penalty and ask them: 'How exactly have you used the death penalty in the past year?' In the case of Sudan, sometimes we are getting an answer, sometimes we don't - as with many other countries. But we do try to use many varying sources to confirm the information.

Jan Erik Wetzel is Amnesty International's Death Penalty Advisor.

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