China. Iran. Saudi Arabia. Iraq. The United States of America.
What you just read is, according to Amnesty International, a list of the countries that executed the largest numbers of prisoners in 2014.
While the U.S. Supreme Court was making huge news last month with its decisions on Obamacare and same-sex marriage, it also issued a ruling on another hot-button issue: capital punishment. The question before the court was a narrow one, whether Oklahoma’s lethal injection procedure constituted cruel and unusual punishment. By a 5-4 vote, the court said no.
But the opinions released June 28 reflected a bitter controversy within the court about capital punishment that coincides with polling indicating a decline in support for it among Americans.
The arguments for and against capital punishment (the mistakes, the question of deterrence, unequal application, etc.) are well established.
But the Amnesty report released earlier this year helps put that controversy into a global context. Simply put, the United States is part of a relatively small minority of countries – 22 in 2014 — that still impose capital punishment. And it’s fair to say that many Americans wouldn’t normally choose the company the U.S. is keeping on that list. For a number of years now, the United States has been the only country in the Americas to execute anyone at all.
The office of the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, says 160 U.N. members have either abolished capital punishment or are not executing anyone. And Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says, “The death penalty has no place in the 21st century.” The European Union makes abolishing capital punishment a precondition for membership.
Amnesty, which keeps careful numbers on capital cases globally, acknowledges that in many countries, the figures are not public and it is hard to know how many people actually were executed. That is certainly true of China, which executes far more people than any other country. Amnesty thinks there were several thousand executions there last year, but China considers the figure a state secret. There were at least 289 in Iran, 90 in Saudi Arabia, 61 in Iraq and 35 in the U.S.
The next five were Sudan (at least 23), Yemen (22), Egypt (15), Somalia (14) and Jordan (11). Also not very inspiring company.
While the number of known executions worldwide fell last year, substantially more people were actually sentenced to death, Amnesty says. That’s mostly due to large numbers in Nigeria and Egypt. Nigeria is battling the Boko Haram extremist group, and Egypt has been conducting mass trials of members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had formed the previously government. But death sentences and executions are not the same thing.
Just because you’ve banned or suspended capital punishment doesn’t mean your country is a paragon of virtue, of course. And in those that do conduct executions, not all cases are equally clear. Few Americans would probably go along with the decision of Iranian authorities last year to execute a woman who stabbed a man during a sexual assault.
It’s also worth comparing the death sentence Dzhokar Tsarnaev received last month for the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people, with the sentence Norway imposed on right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik for a much deadlier act of terrorism – a bombing and shooting spree that killed 77 people in 2011.
Breivik famously complained about bad video games in the prison where he is serving 21 years. If that term seems incredibly light by U.S. standards, it can be extended indefinitely if authorities determine that he still poses a threat to society.
Then, there was Indonesia’s decision to execute drug offenders in response to what its new president says is a “national emergency” of drug abuse. Eight – Nigerian, Brazilian and Australian citizens, as well as one Indonesian — were shot by a firing squad in late April despite international appeals to spare their lives.
President Joko Widodo’s decision to go ahead with executions in drug cases appears politically popular with Indonesians.
But overall, capital punishment seems to be one of those issues where public attitudes don’t necessarily influence government policy.
Take these numbers from Russia. Russia suspended executions in the 1990s. However, a large majority still favored imposing capital punishment for a variety of offensives (The numbers are a few years old now, but are unlikely to have changed a great deal). The biggest percentage favored permitting execution in cases of sexual offenses against teenagers. Only about a quarter of those polled were in favor of keeping the moratorium or banning capital punishment altogether.
Then, there’s Britain, which hasn’t executed anyone for more than half a century – since 1964.
Still, Amnesty International said, polls indicated that as recently as five years ago, a bare majority – 51 percent — favored the use of capital punishment. By last year, that figure had fallen to 45 percent.