Little by little, countries are ditching the death penalty
On September 19th Abdul Hamid al-Fakki, a Sudanese, was executed in Saudi Arabia for the crime of “sorcery”. On September 21st Troy Davis, a black man convicted of shooting an off-duty white policeman, was executed in the American state of Georgia. Protests that the evidence against him was flawed proved fruitless.
Despite these cases the death penalty, on the statute books since the days of Hammurabi, is disappearing in much of the world. More than two-thirds of countries have done away with it either in law or in practice. The latest is Benin. In August the west African country committed itself to abolishing capital punishment permanently. The number of countries that carry out judicial killings fell from 41 in 1995 to 23 in 2010, according to Amnesty International, a pressure group. China (chiefly), Iran, North Korea, and Yemen accounted for most of the executions. Votes against the death penalty at the UN General Assembly have passed with big and growing majorities since 2007. Capital punishment has virtually gone in Europe (only Belarus still uses it, most recently in 2010). This year China whittled down its list of crimes punishable by death.
Yet for all the apparent momentum, capital punishment remains entrenched in the Middle East and north Africa, and in parts of Asia, notably China. Jacqueline Macalesher of Penal Reform International, a lobby group, thinks the Arab spring could be a new spur to abolition, though she worries that executing political enemies may prove attractive in the short run.
The other big exception is America, where two-thirds of states still have the death penalty. A leading Republican candidate for the presidency, Rick Perry, is governor of Texas, the state that uses it most. The state has carried out a record 236 executions in his nearly 11 years as governor. Mr Perry says he loses no sleep over it, and many voters feel the same.
But the abolitionist trend seems inexorable. In March Illinois became the fourth state in four years to scrap the death penalty. Maryland, Connecticut and California may follow suit. Squeezed state budgets are eroding enthusiasm. The cost of fighting protracted legal battles and maintaining separate facilities for those condemned to death looks increasingly unaffordable when schools and libraries are being closed. California alone has more than 700 people on death row.
Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, a pressure group that espouses abolition, ascribes increasing unhappiness over the death penalty to a long-term growth in sensitivity to human rights. A growing number mind that the death penalty in America falls disproportionately on blacks and poor people. The chance that innocent folk may be executed counts for more, with many, than the deterrent effect of capital punishment (itself questioned by academic studies). Gruesome details about the mechanics of executions also stoke public disquiet.
Pressure to get into international clubs has also propelled abolition. The Council of Europe, a Strasbourg-based talking shop that requires members to accede to the European Convention on Human Rights, has made the death penalty a bar to membership. That (plus other things such as election rigging) has left Belarus’s application with rigor mortis.