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2013 Was a Big Year for Executions

Way to go Iran, Iraq and China.

A protest for the abolition of the death penalty in Iran, San Francisco – June 2010 (image via)

I've got some good news, and some bad news. The good news is that Amnesty International released its annual report on the death penalty on Wednesday and it shows that progress has been made in abolishing the punishment across the world. The bad news is that, on a more local level, a few nations (including Iran and Iraq) have caused a surge in execution numbers, resulting in a 15 percent increase over the 2012 tally.


According to the review, at least 778 people were put to death in 22 countries in 2013 – and these numbers don’t even include China, which is said to have carried out more executions than the rest of the world put together. That being said, official statistics are notoriously flawed, which points to the real numbers far exceeding those acknowledged by governments. For example, Iran officially acknowledges having killed 369 people in 2013, but evidence of secret executions in the country suggests that the actual total is at least 704. The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran says that at least 176 Iranians have been put to death so far in 2014.

I called up Jan Wetzel, death penalty expert at Amnesty International, to find out more.

VICE: Which countries still issuing the death penalty are you most worried about?
Jan Wetzel: I’m most worried about China where executions are treated as a state secret. They probably carried out executions in the thousands in the past year. We don’t know exactly how many, but it is certainly a totally different dimension. We try to follow media developments in China, local reports by local courts – but the overall picture is incomplete.

We are also very worried about Iran and Iraq, as we have seen a very strong spike in executions. The execution spree continues in both countries and we don’t see any changes to their internal politics. In comparison, Yemen – although they never executed in the same scale in recent years – is actually trying to reduce the number of executions. Yet in Iraq and Iran we don’t see anything that would actually mitigate the problem, we just see it getting worse. I've heard there is a big problem with organ harvesting by death row inmates in China. Can you tell me more about that?
It is a huge problem. Interestingly, the Chinese Health Minister recently declared that this practice will be phased out by the middle of 2014. Again, this needs to be taken with a bit of caution. We have had similar announcements before and the practice still continued. But it is a good sign that a senior politician wants to tackle the problem and that, together with other changes implemented by the Chinese supreme court in the last year, we do see some progress – even if on a very low level. Chinese politicians have talked about wanting to reduce the number of executions, and there is even talk about abolition in the distant future. It is speculated that North Koreans are being executed for acts of cannibalism  – does Amnesty have any further information?
A large part of the population in North Korea is close to starvation. This mainly refers to people trying to survive in prison camps and yes we have heard that, but again this is essentially second-hand information that we were not able to corroborate. We do, on the other hand, have reports of executions for activities against the Workers' Party – some reports of executions for watching banned South Korean soap operas usually in connection with other offenses, like smuggling such video material across the border from South Korea.

How many child offenders are currently on death row in the Middle East?
We are able to confirm that one young woman and two young men – who were under the age of 18 at the time the crime was committed – were executed in Saudi Arabia at the beginning of 2013. There are also reports that juvenile offenders were possibly executed in Iran and Yemen although we were unable to confirm their actual age due to the lack of birth certificates. So many judges go by literal superficial signs of puberty and facial hair to see whether the offender will be treated as an adult or not. There is a rule under UN law that basically says, when in doubt about the offender's age, the person should be treated as a juvenile offender – meaning that this person is protected from the death sentence.

You only hear reports about women being stoned to death. Is this a method of execution men are exempt from?
At present, in Iraq we are aware of 10 women being under the sentence of stoning. They have not been executed and one of them was actually released a couple of weeks ago, but women are more likely to get sentenced to stoning because the evidence is more easily collected.Stoning is the punishment for adultery, so if you are an unmarried pregnant woman the evidence is right there. It is much more difficult to prove that a man has committed adultery. Having said that, there was a man executed for adultery in Saudi Arabia, but he was not stoned. Are representatives of the opposition in Iran being increasingly targeted since Hassan Rouhani came to power?
We do see an increased crackdown on political but also cultural activities by ethnic minority representatives. We've come across a growing number of executions of ethnic minority members under all sorts of shady pretences. Iranian law has a couple of capital crimes – like corruption on earth – which are very vaguely formulated and can essentially be used and abused against any form of political dissent. This just shows how national law can be used as a tool of political suppression. The vast majority of death sentences are actually given for drug crimes. Of course we know that this doesn’t work. Not only because the death penalty does not have any particular deterrent effect at all, but also because you end up catching the low-level drug mules. Is the West turning a blind eye on the human rights situation in Iran in favour of the nuclear talks?
I’m hesitant to speculate, but it is fair to say that the death penalty has not been a priority on the agenda of Western states as much as it might have been in previous years. I don’t want to say that there was any form of conscious trade-off, but I would say that the death penalty was possibly pushed down the priority agenda due to the nuclear talks. How do you explain the peak in executions in Iraq?
The rising number of executions In Iraq has to be seen against the background of armed violence in the country and again that actually is a serious problem with huge casualties amongst civilians within the last year. Amnesty fully acknowledges this. What we don’t accept is the government's stance that the death penalty is a tool to counter terrorism.

They have stepped up the use of the death penalty, but the level of violence and number of casualties amongst civilians has also risen over the last couple of years. Plus, the criminal justice system is in such a terrible state that many people just get arrested whether or not they actually belong to one of these armed groups. Quite often confessions are beaten out of them and they get sentenced to death without a genuine review of their case or access to lawyers. We have similar issues in Saudi Arabia within the criminal justice system, although it is not quite as bad. What does Amnesty make of the blood money practice?
The blood money practice allows a compensation payment to the family of the murder victim in exchange for the retraction of the death penalty. But in order to be able to participate in this system, you need to have funds yourself or access to funds in your home country. Quite often migrant workers sentenced to death are poor and have no chance in this regard. Does corruption play a part in this blood money ordeal?
I don’t want to speculate, so I’m unable to comment on that. The blood system has too many errors of its own because it favours the wealthy. If other countries like Indonesia or the Philippines try to support the collection of these funds, then they are potentially working against the death penalty. So they resumed the death penalty in their own country but are actually working against it when it comes to their own nationals facing executions abroad. There is a bit of a mixed message here, which we find noteworthy. On the whole the death penalty is on the wane. What is your outlook for the future in regards to those countries you are specifically worried about?
The countries still executing on a high level – China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, to some extent the US, Somalia, Sudan – are becoming more and more isolated. I don’t see them actually stopping executions. On the contrary, numbers in Iran and Iraq might actually go up within the next few years. The US is slowly moving away from large-scale use of the death penalty, which is quite crucial. Other countries are currently pointing to the US and saying "Look they still use the death penalty, so why shouldn’t we?" Last year we saw the state of Maryland abolishing it, this year New Hampshire may follow, and that would be the 19th abolition. Again you have this isolationist movement, with most executions having been carried out in just one state, Texas. The situation in the US is similar to other parts of world: Yes, the death penalty is legally still available, but the jurisdiction actually using it is becoming more and more isolated.