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The Dark Side of the Planet: Where the Death Penalty Is King

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I'm not sure, but I think that in some people's minds the idea that there ought to be laws that mean you can sentenced to death for certain crimes is not in any way controversial. It would be almost axiomatic, for some people, that the most serious crimes - premeditated murder, some forms of terrorism, possibly certain other crimes like espionage or large-scale drug-dealing - should be met with the most serious punishment.

Simples. It's a tough law, certainly, but it's actually a fair one, would go the argument. Because the death penalty supposedly signals deep respect for the sanctity of life - thus taking crime seriously - it is said to be superior to the supposed "liberalism" of many modern legal systems, with their hand-wringing concern for rehabilitation (books for prisoners etc) and for avoiding cruelty.

Hmm. So far, so Nick Ferrari. Seems to me that the hanging-is-too-good-for-'em contingent tend to get their voices heard on a regular basis in Britain. They do so usually after a high-profile and particularly horrible case - the brutal butchering of Lee Rigby in Woolwich for example, or after the shooting of the police officer Sharon Beshenivsky in Bradford in 2005. The pro-hangers are of course entitled to their view, and opinion polls tend to show that they have some support. But, liberal hand-wringer that I am, I reckon that many of the people who tick the "I support capital punishment" box in questionnaires would actually be horrified if they knew what really happens in countries where they still have a working gallows or an operational lethal injection chamber. Here are just a few examples:

*Last October, a Kurdish man in Iran called Habibollah Golparipour was one of 20 people hanged during a single weekend. He'd been sentenced to death after a five-minute trial. His offence was something called "enmity against God", supposedly manifested through his alleged cooperation with a banned armed group called the Party For Free Life of Kurdistan. His family was not notified of his impending execution beforehand, and afterwards the authorities apparently refused to give the body back to his family.

*Earlier this month, a man in the US state of Louisiana called Glenn Ford walked out of the notorious Angola prison after spending nearly 30 years on death row. He was the 144th US "exonoree" since 1973. Ford avoided death in the lethal injection chamber only because new evidence came to light suggesting he'd been wrongly convicted. Ford, a black man, had been sentenced to death by an all-white jury for killing a white shop owner. At his trial no murder weapon was ever identified, dubious "expert" witnesses were used, and Ford's main lawyer was woefully out of his depth - having never before even taken part in a jury trial.

*Last October (already, as we've seen, a busy month for Iranian executioners) a 37-year-old man (identified only as "Alireza M) was hanged in Bojnourd prison in the north-east of Iran after being convicted of drugs offences. However, in the morgue the next day someone apparently noticed breath coming from under the plastic sheeting in which his body had been wrapped. He was rushed to hospital and resuscitated. It turned out he'd actually survived his 12-minute hanging. However, he was then sentenced to be hanged for a second time, with a judge reportedly saying this should happen "once medical staff confirm his health condition is good enough". In the event, this grotesque rigmarole was brought to an end after Iran's justice minister stepped in to say he wouldn't be executed all over again.

*In the first seven months of 2013, something like 2,000 bodies were "harvested" for their medically valuable internal organs in China soon after these people had been executed, according to China's former Minister of Health, Huang Jiefu.

*And there's just been the news that Hakamada Iwao, the Japanese man who has been on death row for over 45 years, has finally won the right to a retrial. I've written about this truly unbelievable case several times before: see here and here.

There are many more cases like this. Politicised show trials, error-strewn and near-racist courtrooms, mistakes corrected decades after the fact, ethically indefensible overlaps between judicial and medical protocols, ghoulishly botched attempted executions, arbitrary laws and procedures that make a nonsense of the notion of equality before the law - all these and more are actually fairly typical of the 21st-century death penalty, not rare aberrations. Dig away at most death penalty cases, and examine most countries' application of this sordid punishment, and you'll find a mass of inconsistencies over how the penalty is imposed and administered, as well as some out-and-out legal horror stories.

In Saudi Arabia, foreigners who don't speak Arabic are forced to sit through their trials without actually understanding what's happening; unsurprisingly they bulk large in the country's execution figures (according to Amnesty data, out of 2,017 people known to have been executed in Saudi Arabia during 1985-2013, at least 991 were foreign nationals). In Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand, you can be sentenced to death for drugs offences, but in many pro-death penalty countries you won't be. In North Korea you can be sentenced to death for watching banned TV dramas from South Korea, while in China there are no less than 55 capital offences, including counterfeiting currency and bribery. In Iraq it's perfectly normal to see television programmes where battered and bruised-looking detainees "confess" to terrorist crimes before their trials, later turning up on the gallows after spectacularly unfair trials. And of course after a staggering 529 people were sentenced to death in Egypt in one fell swoop on Monday, it's beginning to look more and more as if just being a Muslim Brotherhood supporter in post-Morsi Egypt could be enough to get you condemned to death. For more on the sheer arbitrariness of the death penalty, try skimming through the new Amnesty report. It really is a lethal lottery.

In the UK we've had our own death penalty disasters - most famously Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley, as well as the lesser-known Mahmood Hussein Mattan case - and despite the supposed "excellence" of our legal system, the miscarriages have kept keep on coming: the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Judith Ward, Stephen Downing, Stefan Kiszko, Sean Hodgson, the Cardiff Newsagent Three, Barry George, Barri White and Keith Hyatt, Eddie Gilfoyle? No doubt there are many more to come.

So where in the world can you actually find a country where they administer a capital punishment system without all the fatal flaws, the inconsistencies and the unconscionable arbitrariness? Easy! In the heads of those tough-talking pro-death penalty types who like to go on about "making the sentence fit the crime". In this la-la land of perfect justice, unrepentant killers are efficiently despatched after an exhaustive trial and everyone breathes easy in their beds. This brightly-lit fantasy world of moral rigour and legal rectitude is really a fantasy, a dark side to our highly imperfect, all-shades-of-grey and very messy planet. It's a planet that has time and time again reverted to the cruelty of the death penalty with disgusting results.

Around the Web

Death Penalty Information Center: DPIC

Death penalty - Legal Information Institute

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National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty

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