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America Is Stuck With the Death Penalty for (At Least) a Generation

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With Justice Anthony Kennedy's retirement, the national fight to abolish capital punishment will have to go local.
When the Supreme Court revived capital punishment in 1976, just four years after de facto abolishing it, the justices effectively took ownership of the American death penalty and all its outcomes. They have spent the decades since then setting its legal and constitutional parameters, supervising its general implementation, sanctioning its use in specific cases, and brushing aside concerns about its many flaws.
That unusual role in the American legal system is about to change. With Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement from the court this summer, the Supreme Court will lose a heterodox jurist whose willingness to cross ideological divides made him the deciding factor in many legal battles. In cases involving the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, his judgment often meant the difference between life and death for hundreds of death-row pr…

Obama must raise juvenile executions on Saudi Arabia trip

President Barack Obama
President Barack Obama
President Obama must use a trip to Saudi Arabia this week to help three Saudi juveniles who face execution after they were arrested for attending protests, international human rights organization Reprieve has said.

Mr Obama is due to travel to Saudi Arabia today (19th) on what is expected to be the last visit of his Presidency. The trip comes amid concerns for the fate of Ali al-Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, who face execution on charges relating to their attendance at protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province in 2012. All three were children when they were arrested, and were forced under torture to sign ‘confessions’ that led to their conviction in the country’s secretive Specialized Criminal Court.

Speaking in December last year, a US State Department spokesperson said the Administration was “concern[ed]” by Ali Al-Nimr’s case, and called on Saudi Arabia “to respect universal human rights and its international obligations.” However, it is not clear whether the US has raised the juveniles’ cases directly, and Saudi Arabia has since executed a number of other minors, as part of a mass execution of 47 prisoners in January. Among them was Ali Al-Ribh, who was arrested in school in the wake of the 2012 protests.

Last year, Ali al-Nimr’s mother Nusra al-Ahmed called on President Obama to secure her son’s release, telling the Guardian: “My son and I are simple people and we don’t carry any significance in this world but despite that, if he [Obama] carried out this act, I feel it would raise his esteem in the eyes of the world.” She added, “He would be rescuing us from a great tragedy.”

Research by the human rights organization Reprieve last year revealed that 72 per cent of those facing execution in Saudi Arabia were convicted of non-violent offenses, such as political protest. The first quarter of 2016 saw a record number of executions in the country, Reprieve has found, with 84 prisoners killed – setting the Kingdom on course to double its 2015 executions total.

Commenting, Maya Foa, director of the death penalty team at Reprieve, said: “President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia comes amid a huge surge in repression in the Kingdom. Scores of prisoners – including young people arrested at protests – have been executed, after being tortured into ‘confessions’ and put through shockingly unfair trials. It’s too late to save Ali al-Ribh and the other juveniles killed in January, but the President can, and must, urge the Saudi authorities to commute the sentences of Ali al Nimr, Dawood al-Marhoon and Abdullah al-Zaher, and release them – before they suffer a similar fate.”
  • Comments last year by the US State Department's on Ali Al-Nimr's case can be seen here (December) and here (September). 
  • The comments by Ali Al-Nimr's mother, Nusra Al-Ahmed, can be seen here.
  • Reprieve's report on the death penalty in Saudi Arabia is available here.
Source: Reprieve, April 19, 2016

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