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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…

‘It’s Very Easy to Die There’: How Prisoners Fare in Vietnam

Court hearing, Vietnam
Vietnam has been slowly updating its criminal justice system for years, under pressure from Western governments, and additional changes approved by the National Assembly in June are scheduled to take effect in January. But diplomats and rights groups have long suspected, based on interviews with former inmates and reports in Vietnam’s state-run news media, that prisons in the country have high rates of executions, forced labor and deaths in custody.

A recent government report on Vietnam’s prison system — which was posted on an official website a few months ago, possibly by accident, according to rights activists — appears to confirm many of the activists’ worst fears.

In one section, the report said 429 prisoners had been executed from August 2013 to June 2016, a rare admission from a one-party government that has long kept its execution process opaque. According to Amnesty International, that means Vietnam had the world’s third-highest execution rate over that period, after China and Iran.

Another section, referring to the period from 2011 to 2016, said 261,840 inmates had received vocational training, a term that rights activists say essentially means forced labor. In addition, the report said, the remains or ashes of 2,812 prisoners were approved for collection by family members, suggesting a high rate of deaths in custody for a prison population that the government says numbers less than 150,000.

The statistics “give us reason to doubt that governance is becoming less authoritarian and violent as Vietnam transitions to a market economy,” said Benjamin Swanton, a longtime social justice advocate and development consultant in Vietnam.

Many officials in Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party support changes to the criminal justice system, said Pip Nicholson, a professor at Melbourne Law School in Australia who specializes in Vietnamese law. But party officials who advocate for Western-style rules, such as truly independent courts or the presumption of innocence until proved guilty, she added, are in the minority.

The result, policy experts and rights advocates say, is a court system where arrests almost always lead to convictions and a prison system where human rights are an afterthought. Corruption, impunity and violence in prisons are mostly tolerated, these advocates say, because the system serves the party’s interests by silencing dissidents and enriching prison guards.

“It’s very easy to die there,” said Doan Trang, an independent journalist in Hanoi who has written extensively about state-led repression in the country.

The recent government report presented prison statistics as part of a long-term process of changes in line with global trends. It noted, for example, that the number of crimes punishable by death in Vietnam had fallen to 22 in 2009 from 45 in 1993.

The report also said, however, that the number of people on death row in Vietnam had climbed to 681 last year from 336 in 2011, and that the government planned to build five new execution centers to accommodate demand.


Source: The New York Times, Mike Ives, August 12, 2017

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