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

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…

As Indonesia conducts more executions, Australia's anti-death-penalty advocacy is still lacking

Indonesian police officers
Indonesia has carried out a 3rd round of executions under President Joko Widodo. Attorney-General H. Muhammad Prasetyo had announced that 14 people would face the firing squad, but only 4 were killed on Thursday night - 3 Nigerians and an Indonesian national.

All those executed under Widodo have been convicted of drug offences. Deputy Attorney-General Noor Rachmad said the most recent executions were: ... done not in order to take lives but to stop evil intentions, and the evil act of drug trafficking.

The remaining 10 executions were delayed. The attorney-general's office has not justified this delay. The 10 remaining prisoners include Indonesians and Nigerian, Indian, South African and Zimbabwean nationals. Those prisoners face another agonising and indefinite wait for their execution.

Indonesia faces renewed international criticism

Human rights organisations have renewed criticism of Indonesia's practice of capital punishment for drug offences.

Amnesty International has highlighted problems in the judicial process for many of those involved in the current round of executions. Several were denied proper access to legal counsel. Some have claimed they were subject to torture and ill-treatment to induce confessions.

Reprieve International condemned Indonesia for its failure to name those due to face imminent execution: " Many prisoners on death row simply do not know who will be plucked out and shot."

Such critiques highlight the many means by which capital punishment threatens human rights standards and undermines the value of human life. The practice is not only barbaric but also futile. Capital punishment has never been established as a more effective deterrent to crime than imprisonment.

Australia's response to this round of executions has been muted in comparison to the previous round, which resulted in the executions of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, and 6 others.

This partiality was a key issue raised before the recent federal parliamentary inquiry into Australia's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.

What did the parliamentary inquiry recommend?

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop initiated the parliamentary inquiry following her strong but unsuccessful advocacy for clemency on behalf of Sukumaran and Chan. Its terms of reference sought to improve Australia's capacity to advocate effectively for death penalty abolition.

The inquiry committee received 62 written submissions and held nine public hearings. The committee was persuaded Australia could do much more to ensure its laws and actions were consistent with its abolitionist policy stance. Its report made 13 detailed recommendations.

The key recommendations included:

--a review of extradition law to ensure compliance with Australia's abolitionist stance;

--the amendment of Australian Federal Police (AFP) guidelines "to include a stronger focus on preventing exposure of all persons to the risk of the death penalty";

--AFP refusal to contribute to international policing operations on drug crime unless partner countries guarantee they will not seek capital punishment;

--the grounding of Australia's advocacy against the death penalty in human rights principles;

--the development, by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, of a strategy for the abolition of the death penalty. This would mirror the whole-of-government abolitionist stance taken by the UK and Norway; and

--government intervention in death penalty cases involving foreign nationals, particularly in cases of severe human rights threat.

Amnesty International Australia welcomed the recommendations. It said, if implemented, these could drive progress towards global abolition. But so far the federal government has not publicly responded to the report.

Will Australia show leadership?

Australian law and policy incorporate international obligations regarding death penalty abolition. Yet Australia's practice has been to advocate in respect of its nationals facing execution overseas.

As in the case of Chan and Sukumaran, this weakens the principled basis of Australia's efforts towards abolition. Advocacy efforts are easier to dismiss when they are seen to reflect vested interests more than principled foundations.

Australia's abolitionist advocacy must be less partial and more principled if it is to be persuasive. The parliamentary committee acknowledged this by encouraging Australia to emphasise the human rights principles that ground opposition to the death penalty. It also encouraged Australia to leverage the influence it has on key partners - the US and Asia-Pacific countries.

As Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull seeks to strengthen ties with Indonesia, advocacy against capital punishment may seem politically unpalatable. Countries often appear allergic to outside "interference" in their domestic affairs.

Recent Australian governments have certainly fallen into this camp. They have adopted human rights standards as desired and rejected international criticism when Australia fails to meet its obligations.

However, advocacy for death penalty abolition presents an opportunity for Australia to improve its increasingly dire international reputation. Here is a central human rights problem where Australia has a well-established domestic legal position. No Australian parliament has shown any interest in returning to the practice of capital punishment.

In the wake of the federal election, the committee's report stands as a challenge to the newly formed government. Will Australia choose death penalty abolition as a movement through which to rebuild its commitment to human rights? It would be a great shame if the recommendations before the government were left to gather dust.

Source: theconversation.com, July 29, 2016

Indonesia's firing squad executions: Which parts of the world still follow capital punishment

According to Amnesty International, as of July 2015, the capital punishment still continues to be legal in 58 countries.

Indonesia's decision to bring back the death penalty has met backlash from several international organisations including European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN). The United Nations described the rising number of executions in Indonesia as "alarming" and asked the country to stop executions of 14 convicts, who are set to face the death penalty by this weekend, as per Attorney General HM Prasetyo.

Indonesia is not the only country though where the death penalty is still legal. According to Amnesty International, as of July 2015, the capital punishment still continues to be legal in 58 countries. A total of 101 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes in law while 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

There are several countries, apart from Indonesia, where the method of execution by gun firing/firing squad is still legal.

United States

In the United States, the method of execution is still followed in two states, Oklahoma and Utah. The state of Utah, in 2015, reinstated the death penalty by firing, when lethal injections were not available. The state, in 2004, had abolished the practice.

The last time an execution by firing squad was practiced in Utah, was back in the year 2010, when Ronnie Lee Gardner, a convicted murder, was given the death sentence. Even though the state abolished the practice in 2004, Gardner was given the sentence before 2004, and had the option to choose the method of execution.


In India, hanging is the method of execution in the civilian court system, according to the Indian Criminal Procedure Code. Under the 1950 Army Act, hanging as well as shooting are both listed as official methods of execution in the military court-martial system. The number of people executed in India since independence in 1947 is a matter of dispute since there are no official figures. The last execution took place in 2015 when Yakub Memon, responsible for the 1993 Mumbai blasts, was hanged to death.

China traditionally used firing squads. But in recent years China has begun using lethal injections and that is now believed to be the main technique. The exact number of executions in China is a state secret, but it is thought to be the most in the world.

Videos smuggled out of North Korea reportedly show public executions by firing squad.

Taiwan's death row total stands at more than 100. The number of executions, carried out by handgun shooting either to the heart or to the brain, declined after 2000 due to public opposition, with none between 2006 and 2009. They resumed in 2010 following a change in president and renewed sentiment in favor of the policy.

Vietnam, with nearly 700 people on death row, switched from firing squads to lethal injection on humanitarian grounds in 2011. Since then, it has only executed a handful of people because of the difficulty in acquiring the required drugs.

Thailand executed prisoners by a machine gun or automatic rifle fired by an executioner until 2002, when the method was changed to lethal injection. There have been no executions since 2009.


In Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, 3 countries that have some of the highest execution rates in the world, firing squads are rarely used. In Saudi Arabia, the usual method of execution is beheading by a swordsman. In 2013, a firing squad was used in the execution of 7 men convicted of looting and armed robbery.

The United Arab Emirates uses firing squads for all executions, but death penalty sentences are rarely carried out. The most recently reported execution was in January 2014.


Capital punishment has been completely abolished across Europe with the former Soviet nation of Belarus being the sole exception. The exact number of people executed in Belarus is believed to be 3 in 2014, according to human rights' groups, but there is some uncertainty about that figure because of the general lack of transparency there. It is believed to have been below 10 executions in the past decade. Execution is done by shooting in the back of the head, but the death penalty's use is shrouded in secrecy.


In 2013, Somalia executed 34 people while Sudan put 21 to death, according to Amnesty International. Somalia generally uses firing squads to carry out its death sentences; 2 soldiers were executed by shooting on Tuesday, according to the country's military court. In recent years, the only other country in the region to use firing squads was Equatorial Guinea, which shot 4 people last year but then issued a moratorium on future executions, Amnesty said.

Latin America

In general, the death penalty has been abolished across the region, if not by law in each country, then on a de facto basis, according to the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. The last known execution in the region was in Cuba in 2003 by firing squad.

Source: Indian Express, July 29, 2016

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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

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