Will the U.S. Finally End the Death Penalty?

In the past, abolition efforts have faced a backlash—but Gavin Newsom’s moratorium may be different.
The American death penalty is extraordinarily fragile, with death sentences and executions on the decline. Public support for the death penalty has diminished. The practice is increasingly marginalized around the world. California, with its disproportionately large share of American death-row inmates, announces an end to the death penalty. The year? 1972. That’s when the California Supreme Court declared the death penalty inconsistent with the state’s constitutional prohibition of cruel or unusual punishments—only to have the death penalty restored a year later through popular initiative and legislation.
On Wednesday, again, California walked back its commitment to the death penalty. Though not full-fledged abolition, Governor Gavin Newsom declared a moratorium on capital punishment lasting as long as his tenure in office, insisting that the California death penalty has been an “abject…

Tuesday Becomes Execution Day in Egypt

For the past 3 Tuesdays, Egypt has hanged civilians sentenced to death by military tribunals:

Jan. 9: 3 men were hanged. They had been convicted of rape and sentenced to die by a military tribunal in 2011.

Jan. 2: 4 men accused of being Islamic militants were hanged. They had been tried and sentenced to death by a military tribunal for an attack in 2015 outside a stadium that killed 3 military academy students.

Dec. 26: 15 men accused of being militants were hanged. A military tribunal had convicted them in November and sentenced them to death for an attack on a military checkpoint in the Sinai Peninsula in 2013 in which one officer and 8 soldiers were killed.

The Sinai attack occurred amid violence that broke out across Egypt shortly after the military ousted Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who had been elected president. The day before that attack, security forces killed nearly 1,000 people while breaking up 2 Muslim Brotherhood sit-ins in Cairo. No member of the security forces has been held accountable for those mass killings, which human rights groups believe President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi orchestrated when he was defense minister.

It is gut-wrenching to try to absorb the enormity of the state-sanctioned murder - which I believe executions to be. We talk of having an independent judiciary in Egypt, but it is far from impartial. Whether in a military tribunal courtroom or a civilian one, the arc of the Egyptian moral universe bends not toward justice, but instead toward the political whim of whoever has power. That is especially pronounced in military tribunals.

Since Mr. Sisi has been in power, the numbers of death sentences and executions have risen markedly. According to the state news media in Egypt, in 2017 courts handed down 186 death sentences, triple the 60 handed down in 2016. And the number of executions doubled to 44 in 2016 from 22 in 2015. Last year, Egypt executed 16 people. In just the first 9 days of 2018, it has hanged almost 1/2 that number.

When the Egyptian authorities are not putting to death people through their courts, they do so extrajudicially. In April, Human Rights Watch said military forces in the Sinai Peninsula had executed at least 2 and as many as 8 unarmed detainees and covered up the killings to make it appear that the victims were armed terrorists shot to death in a raid.

In the 15 hangings on Dec. 26, Egyptian human rights groups have said, the legal procedures were flawed and at least one of the 15 appeared to have been tortured. One lawyer, who was in touch with families and lawyers of those hanged, said the executed men's lawyers were not given time to present an appeal before the defense minister signed off on their executions. And even small mercies were denied. The families had no chance to say goodbye before the men were hanged.

In a similar vein, a sister of 1 of the men hanged last Tuesday told the independent Egyptian news site Mada Masr that their families don't know where the executions were carried out, nor how to claim their kin's bodies. A military court had scheduled an appeal for Feb. 25 - 6 weeks after the hangings.

Why hold 22 executions over 3 successive Tuesdays? They seem a clear message from a government determined to show it is in control. There is usually a security clampdown in the run-up to Jan. 25, the anniversary of the uprising in 2011 that spread revolutionary protests against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak across Egypt.

But is Mr. Sisi really in control? He has also ordered security forces to use "brutal force" against an armed militant campaign in northern Sinai, even though several years of such force by security forces have failed to stem violence. Just last November, for example, militants killed more than 300 worshipers at Friday prayer in a gun and bomb attack.

Another factor may be that this month Egypt announced a presidential election to be held in March. Mr. Sisi, a former general and head of military intelligence, was pronounced the winner of the last election in 2014, with a difficult-to-believe 96.1 % of the votes.

Lest there be doubt about the outcome 2 months from now, consider this: Candidates must register by the end of January. One potential candidate is in prison. Another was kept under effective house arrest until he withdrew. A 3rd is on trial and will be disqualified if his conviction is upheld. And a 4th must try to get thousands of signatures in support before he can qualify to run. (Candidates must obtain the backing of at least 20 members of Parliament or be supported by at least 25,000 eligible voters in at least 15 of Egypt's 27 administrative districts, called governorates.)

Mr. Sisi has yet to announce his candidacy, but more than 3/4 of the members of Parliament expressed support for him the day after the election date was announced.

Through all of this bad news, Egypt's human rights abuses are falling through the cracks of an increasingly insular Trump administration in Washington and a global climate of rising tolerance for repression that has challenged even the most hardened of advocates. The office of the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, has denounced the recent executions in Egypt. But Mr. Hussein has decided not to seek a 2nd 4-year term, saying it "might involve bending a knee in supplication."

I hold little hope that on a visit to Egypt scheduled for Saturday, the American vice president, Mike Pence, will condemn the horrific number of recent executions in Egypt. After all, successive American administrations have paid little more than lip service to human rights in Egypt, even as they sent billions of dollars in aid and weaponry.

And let's be honest: When it comes to the death penalty, the United States is hardly in a position to preach. There were 2,832 people on death row there at the end of 2016, according to Amnesty International. Still, too many await death by hanging in Egyptian prisons. What Egyptian can forget the notorious judge who, after a cursory trial of a few sessions lasting just minutes, sentenced more than 680 people to death in April 2014 for the killing of 1 police officer?

The death sentence is unjust and barbaric, everywhere. It is especially an abomination in countries where justice is rarely served. Egypt must not make Tuesdays synonymous with mass hangings.

Source: The New York Times, Op-Ed; Mona Eltahawy, January 15, 2018. Mona Eltahawy is the author of "Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution."

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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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