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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…

Teenager tortured into confessing is days away from execution in Iran

Public execution of an 18-year-old youth in Ghaemshahr on Sep. 14, 2013
Public execution of an 18-year-old youth in Ghaemshahr, Iran, on Sep. 14, 2013
The Iranian authorities must urgently halt the scheduled execution this Sunday of a teenager who was just 15 years old at the time of his arrest, said Amnesty International.

Alireza Tajiki, now 19 years old, was sentenced to death in April 2013 after a criminal court in Fars Province, southern Iran, convicted him of murder and rape primarily on the basis of "confessions" extracted through torture which he repeatedly retracted in court. His execution is due to take place on Sunday, May 15 in Shiraz's Adel Abad Prison in Fars Province.

"Imposing the death penalty on someone who was a child at the time of the crime flies in the face of international human rights law, which absolutely prohibits the use of the death penalty for crimes committed under the age of 18. It is particularly horrendous that the Iranian authorities are adamant to proceed with the execution when this case was marked by serious fair trial concerns and primarily relied on torture-tainted evidence," said James Lynch, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.

"Iran's bloodstained record of sending juvenile offenders to the gallows, routinely after grossly unfair trials, makes an absolute mockery of juvenile justice and shamelessly betrays the commitments Iran has made to children's rights.The Iranian authorities must immediately halt this execution and grant Alireza Tajiki a fair retrial where the death penalty and coerced 'confessions' play no part."

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Iranian authorities to establish a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty.

Tajiki was arrested along with several other young men in May 2012 on suspicion of murdering and raping his friend who was stabbed to death. He was denied access to lawyer throughout the entire investigation process. He was placed in solitary confinement for 15 days, without access to his family. During this period he was subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, he said, including severe beatings, floggings, and suspension by arms and feet, to make him "confess" to the crime. He later retracted the "confessions" both before the prosecution authorities and during his trial, and has since maintained his innocence consistently. However, despite this, his "confession" was admitted as evidence during proceedings against him.

In April 2014, a year after Tajiki was first convicted his verdict was quashed by a branch of the Supreme Court which found the investigation incomplete due to a lack of forensic evidence linking him to the sexual assault. It ordered the Provincial Criminal Court in Fars Province to carry out further investigations and to examine his "mental growth and maturity" at the time of the crime in light of new juvenile sentencing guidelines in Iran's 2013 Islamic Penal Code.

The Code allows judges to replace the death penalty with an alternative sentence if they determine that there are doubts about the juvenile offender's "mental growth and maturity" at the time of the crime.

In November 2014, the criminal court resentenced him to death, referring to an official medical opinion that found he had attained "mental maturity." However, the court's decision made no reference to concerns the Supreme Court had raised about the lack of forensic evidence, suggesting the investigation that had been ordered was not carried out. The court also relied once again on Tajiki's forced "confessions" as proof of his guilt, without conducting any investigation into his allegations of torture and other ill-treatment.

Despite these flaws, the Supreme Court upheld the sentence in a paragraph-long February 2015 ruling that relied on the principle of "knowledge of the judge," which grants a judge discretionary powers to determine guilt in the absence of conclusive evidence.

More than 970 people were put to death across Iran last year. In January 2016 Amnesty International published a report which found that despite piecemeal reforms introduced by the Iranian authorities in 2013 to deflect criticism of their appalling record on executions of juvenile offenders, they have continued to condemn dozens of young people to death for crimes committed when they were below 18, in violation of their international human rights obligations.

Source: Amnesty International USA, May 12, 2016

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