Death Penalty Worldwide



South Korea’s Ambivalent Position on the Death Penalty

Based on newly obtained information on South Korea’s criminal legislation (in the original language), Death Penalty Worldwide has significantly updated and revised its research on South Korea. Since its last execution in December 1997, South Korea’s stance on the death penalty has seemed rather ambivalent. When former President Kim Dae-jung took office in 1998, it seemed as though South Korea was beginning to inch toward abolition. Kim was a former death row inmate and an outspoken opponent of the death penalty. Yet efforts to abolish capital punishment have never moved forward – the National Assembly has failed to pass three bills aimed at abolition and the Constitutional Court has twice upheld the death penalty in the face of constitutional challenges. In fact, South Korea passed new legislation in 2010 that expanded the number of death-eligible crimes. 

South Korea’s official position in the international arena has been just as ambivalent. While repeatedly abstaining from voting on the UN General Assembly’s Moratorium on the Death Penalty Resolution, the South Korean government has expressed its willingness to consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR aiming at the abolition of the death penalty.

It appears, however, as though South Korea may be moving backwards in the midst of a global trend against the death penalty. Current President Park Geun-hye publicly expressed her support for capital punishment five months prior to taking office, and a recent survey of college students indicated that 76% of the respondents were in favor of resuming executions in response to the rise in heinous crimes. In 2012, the government delegation stated at South Korea’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council that the abolition of the death penalty required careful review of “public opinion and … social realities.” In our view, an official moratorium on executions, let alone abolition of the death penalty, cannot be expected in the short term.


-- Jee Won Oh


Moving Away from the Death Penalty in Southeast Asia

            In Bangkok this week, representatives from several Southeast Asian governments have come together to discuss the prospects for abolition in the region.  The conference, hosted by the office of the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Thai Ministry of Justice, has already generated surprising new information on government plans for abolition in the region.  Long considered a stronghold of the death penalty, the reality on the ground is much more complex.

            In his opening remarks at the conference, Dr. Naras Savestanan of the Thai Ministry of Justice announced that the government will soon propose legislation to abolish the death penalty in the country.  Dr. Savestanan catalogued the problems with the application of the death penalty, including the possibility of wrongful convictions, racial and ethnic bias in its application, the lack of any deterrent value, and the pain associated with execution.  He concluded that the death penalty was a cruel and unreasonable punishment.  If Thailand abolishes the death penalty, it will become the fourth abolitionist nation in the region along with the Philippines, Cambodia, and Mongolia. 

            Myanmar’s government has prevented all executions in the country as a matter of official policy since 1988.  According to the Myanmar Attorney General’s office, the country is now considering ratification of the ICCPR, and will continue its moratorium while it decides whether to move toward abolition.  Laos ratified the Torture Convention just last year, and has had a de facto moratorium for more than 20 years.  Mr. Phoukhong Sisoulath from the Laos Foreign Ministry commented that the concept of proportionality in Laos dates back several hundred years to one of the country’s early kings, who was revered for his humane approach to the treatment of prisoners.  Laos is now examining its penal code with an eye toward reducing the number of death-eligible crimes.  Brunei has not executed any prisoners since 1957.

            One of the most interesting panel presentations during the seminar was given by Dr. Mai Sato from the Centre for Criminology at Oxford University.  Dr. Sato explained how opinion polls on the death penalty in Japan, which are frequently cited by the Japanese government to justify its retention, are skewed by the nature of the questions asked.  Official opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority (about 86%) of Japanese residents oppose abolition of the death penalty. Her own polling revealed that the actual number of “hard core” supporters of the death penalty is around 56% of the population.  Moreover, when those hard core supporters of the death penalty are subjected to “deliberative polling,” which solicits their views after they have discussed the application of the death penalty with experts, about half of them changed their minds.

-- Sandra Babcock  


Providing Help to Capital Defense Lawyers Around the World

June 14, 2013

Today in Madrid, Death Penalty Worldwide released the first-ever international manual of best practices for capital defense lawyers.  Lawyers from Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Nigeria, Uganda, Cameroon, Guinea, Belgium, France, Portugal and the United States contributed to the manual, which draws from international human rights law as well as the practical experience of defense attorneys around the world.  It is available on DPW’s website in both English and French at and

Lawyers in the global south– particularly in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East—have little recourse to training materials to guide them in defending a capital case.  Defense attorneys are almost universally underfunded, and most have never attended a single training session on how to
handle the representation of a person who is facing the death penalty.  The new manual is a step-by-step guide designed to assist a legal representative through all stages of a capital case, from the moment of an individual’s arrest to their final clemency application.  Among other things, the manual provides practical guidance regarding pretrial litigation, investigation of mitigating
evidence, trial strategy, working with the media, appeals, and petitions to international human rights bodies.

At the launch of the manual, lawyers from Pakistan and China discussed the challenges they face in defending individuals facing the death penalty. Sarah Belal, the director of Justice Project Pakistan, described how she has struggled to educate lawyers in her own country about the importance of
investigation in capital cases.  “Many lawyers in Pakistan have never attended a training session in their entire professional careers.  If lawyers begin to implement the practices described in this manual, countless prisoners will be saved from execution.”

The manual has already been translated into French, and will be translated into Chinese and Arabic by the end of 2013.  The Minneapolis-based law firm of Fredrikson and Byron provided critical support in the production of the manual, along with an international team of lawyers, academics, and students associated with Northwestern University’s Center for International Human

-Sandra Babcock


India Resumes Executions After 8 Years, Expands Death Penalty to Rape Not Resulting in Death

Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its entry for India. For the first time in eight years, India has carried out two executions, the first in November 2012 with the hanging of 2008 Mumbai attack gunman Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab and the second in February 2013 with the hanging of Muhammad Afzal, who was convicted of plotting the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament.  Commentators have linked both executions to the new president’s swift denials of clemency, which break with his predecessors’ practice of delaying a decision and thus creating a de facto moratorium on the use of capital punishment. Both recent executions also came shrouded in controversial secrecy. The public and the convicted prisoners’ families were not informed of the new president’s clemency denial or the executions until after they took place.

Following the highly publicized case of a 23-year-old woman who was gang raped and murdered, India also recently expanded its laws to include the death penalty as punishment for some instances of rape that cause the victim to fall into a permanent “vegetative state.” The heinousness of the crime prompted wide protests throughout the country demanding swifter and harsher punishments. Also in response to the recent rape case, the age of juvenile eligibility for punishment has been brought into question because one of the accused was allegedly 17 at the time of the offense. Some states have proposed bills lowering the age of eligibility for capital punishment from 18 to 16 - in contravention of international human rights treaties. However, the Indian government has made it clear that it would not seek to expose juveniles to the death penalty, and has begun juvenile proceedings against the 17-year-old accused.   


-- Sophia Bairaktaris


Afghanistan: A Sudden Acceleration of Executions

Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its entry for Afghanistan. Over the last few years, executions in Afghanistan had taken placeinfrequently.  There was even a brief, 2-year unofficial moratorium in 2009 and 2010, interrupted in June 2011 with the hanging of two men convicted of killing at least 40 people during a bank siege in Jalalabad in February 2011. This past November, however, fourteen hangings took place within two consecutive days for offenses ranging from aggravated rape and murder to terrorism-related acts. On November 20, eight prisoners were hanged in Pol-e Charki Prison. According to a government official quoted by media sources, some of the men were convicted of rape and murder of women and children and some were convicted of murdering security officers. Another six men, alleged to be members of the Taliban, were hanged on November 21. The six men hanged were convicted of terrorist acts, including plotting suicide bombings, kidnappings and assassinations. Moreover, President Hamid Karzai approved a total of 16 executions, so an additional two executions may soon occur. It is unclear what prompted executions to resume at this accelerated pace.

In addition to state–imposed executions, the death penalty continues to be imposed by the Taliban and tribal courts for social crimes under harsh interpretations of Shariah law in areas outside the Afghan government’s direct control, according to the 2011 U.N. Report of the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, In one case in August 2010, the Taliban carried out the execution by stoning of a couple that had eloped without permission. In a more recent incident in 2012, the Taliban executed a 22-year-old woman accused of adultery without an actual trial.

The full entry on capital punishment in Afghanistan can be read here.


-- Sophia Bairaktaris


UN General Assembly Committee adopts draft resolution on death penalty moratorium and for the first time comdemns executions based on gender identity

On November 19, 2012, a majority of the world’s states voted in favor of a resolution calling upon all States to “establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty” (see full text of the resolution here). The vote took place in the UN General Assembly’s Third Committee, which addresses social, humanitarian and human rights issues. This is the Third Committee’s fourth resolution for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty, and the vote paves the way for a full General Assembly vote in late December.

After resolutions passed in 2007, 2008 and 2010, this year’s resolution looks set to be approved by a record-breaking number of states. In the Third Committee, 110 member states voted in favor of the resolution, which had been sponsored by 91 states. Thirty-nine states voted against (2 less than in 2010) and thirty-six states abstained from voting (1 more than in 2010). Eight states were absent from the vote.

While this year’s resolution garnered only one more favorable vote than in 2010, the numbers mask several significant and encouraging changes of position, notably an increase in support from Africa. Among African nations, the Central African Republic, Niger and South Sudan voted in support of the resolution for the first time. South Sudan’s vote is particularly meaningful given recent reports that legal representation is unavailable for many defendants who face the death penalty.

The break-down of the vote was more mixed for Asia and the Arab-speaking world, but there, too, signs of change emerged. While Sri Lanka and Maldives withdrew their prior support and abstained, three retentionist states, Afghanistan, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, passed from opposition to abstention. Tunisia supported the resolution for the first time, and although Morocco abstained, its representative delivered a statement recognizing the importance of campaigning efforts to raise awareness around death penalty issues. Oman and Mauritania, meanwhile, voted against the resolution after previously abstaining.

One day later, on November 20, the Third Committee also passed its twelfth resolution condemning extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. The resolution urges States to protect the right to life and to investigate killings based on discriminatory grounds. In a historic development, the resolution for the first time included “gender identity” as well as “sexual orientation” as grounds of discrimination (the full text of the resolution is available here). Introduced by Sweden, the references to gender identity and sexual orientation were criticized by Egypt, Sudan, the United Arab Emirates, and the Holy See, but most opposing countries chose to abstain from voting. Only one country registered an unfavorable vote: Iran.


-- Delphine Lourtau


Foreign Relations, Reciprocity and the Abolition of the Death Penalty

Over the last month or two, Singapore and Malaysia have announced plans to reduce the scope of the death penalty, while Indonesia has commuted the death sentences of drug traffickers who were sentenced to death.  While human rights activists and abolitionist governments have applauded these measures, few have taken note of the foreign relations concerns that animated each decision. 

When Malaysia’s government announced that it would likely abolish the mandatory death penalty for certain categories of drug traffickers, Law Minister Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz explained that close to 250 Malaysians had been arrested as drug mules and sentenced to death in countries such as China: "[H]ow are we to appeal for leniency from other governments for Malaysians who are in death row in their countries when we hand out the death sentence?"  Seventy-five Indonesians on Malaysia’s death row would be affected by this change in the law. 

Meanwhile, Indonesia’s president commuted the death sentences of a drug trafficker in October 2012, a decision that sparked a heated debate in the country. Responding to criticism, Indonesia’s Foreign Minister observed that most of the world’s nations had abolished the death penalty.  But in addition, Indonesia has emerged as a strong advocate against the death penalty for its citizens abroad, setting up a fund to prevent the execution of Indonesian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.  As human rights lawyer Todung Mulya Lubis observed, "Indonesia does not have the right to ask for mercy for Indonesian migrant workers, to have them spared or pardoned, if we still impose that penalty in Indonesia."

Of course, European and Latin American countries have long sought to prevent the execution of their nationals by foreign governments.  Mexico, Paraguay, and Germany have all sued the United States in the International Court of Justice to prevent the executions of nationals whose consular rights had been violated. But these countries were already abolitionist—so their advocacy abroad did not lead to any changes in domestic policy.  What is happening in Southeast Asia is different.  For the first time in recent history, retentionist states are limiting the scope of the death penalty in direct response to concerns about reciprocal action by other retentionist states.  And this, in turn, reflects a shift in public perceptions about the death penalty.  Indonesians care about the fate of vulnerable Indonesian domestic workers who could be beheaded by Saudi swordsmen.  Malaysians are beginning to recognize that drug mules are often compelled to carry drugs across borders because they are desperately poor and vulnerable to exploitation.  While neither country is apt to abolish the death penalty entirely in the forseeable future, abolishing the mandatory death penalty for Malaysian drug traffickers could save hundreds of lives and vastly reduce executions in a part of the world that has long been resistant to the implementation of international human rights relating to capital punishment.

-- Sandra Babcock


Zimbabwe’s New Constitution Would Restrict Death Penalty to Aggravated Murder

Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its entry for Zimbabwe. The retentionist African country continued to hand down death sentences in 2012; however, Zimbabwe is now into its eighth year without any reported executions. The last execution was carried out in 2004. Approximately 50 death row inmates were awaiting execution at Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison as of 2011.

In July of this year, the Constitution Select Committee (COPAC) released the final version of its draft constitution, which includes language that would restrict the imposition of the death penalty to murder committed in aggravating circumstances. According to the final draft, the death penalty cannot be imposed on women, persons under the age of 21 when a crime was committed, and persons over the age of 70. The new constitution must be approved through a referendum before it becomes official law, and a date has yet to be set for the vote.

Full abolition, however, is not expected in the short term. The Zimbabwean government rejected recommendations to install an official moratorium or commute death sentences at its 2011 Universal Periodic Review. However, recommendations to “consider ratifying” the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR and to “take measures” to abolish the death penalty were accepted. The Zimbabwean government delegation stated that the death penalty was under consideration in its constitution-making process. Once a position was established through the new constitution, Zimbabwe said it would then consider ratifying the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.

The full updated entry on Zimbabwe is available here.

--  Sophia Bairaktaris


Indonesia’s Supreme Court, President Commute Death Sentences for Drug Offenders

Earlier this year the Supreme Court of Indonesia vacated the death sentence of a convicted narcotics producer and distributor. In its place, the court handed Hengky Gunawan, who was arrested in 2007 for running a large ecstasy production operation, a 15-year sentence. The ruling, which was quietly made in April but made public earlier this month, has sparked curiosity and controversy concerning the retentionist country’s position on the death penalty. The Supreme Court’s ruling reportedly said that the death sentence was in violation of Article 28 of the Indonesian Constitution, which provides for rights to life and to remain free from torture that are “fundamental human rights that shall not be curtailed under any circumstance;” and Article 3 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“The judges considered the ruling to be against human rights,” court spokesman Joko Sarwoko told the Jakarta Globe. However, the spokesman also reportedly stated that the ruling did not represent a shift in the court’s opinion and should not be held as a precedent for future cases concerning drug offenses. According to the Indonesian Penal Code and laws, several drug offenses are punishable by death, including drug possession; the involvement in manufacturing or trafficking; involving children in production, trafficking or use of narcotics; and the abuse or possession of psychotropic drugs “in an organized manner.”

Shortly after the court issued its decision, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono commuted the death sentence of convicted drug mule Deni Setia Maharwa to life in prison. The president’s decision, while drawing criticism from politicians and anti-narcotics activists, was distinguished from that of the court by Justice and Human Rights Minister Amir Syamsuddin. Needing to support his family and pay off a car loan, Deni had agreed to carry 3.5 kilograms of heroin and 3 kilograms of cocaine to London. The president reportedly took those facts into consideration before commuting his sentence. Amir told the Jakarta Globe that the president would not have granted clemency to a major producer and distributor as the court did.

According to The Jakarta Post, Amir stated at a press conference on Oct. 16 that the president has commuted the death sentences of three other inmates to life in prison since 2007. While Indonesia has not adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, it is possible that the Indonesian government is shifting its position concerning the death penalty in response to its efforts to prevent the executions of Indonesian migrant workers  who are currently on death row abroad. The last executions in Indonesia were carried out in 2010.


--Sophia Bairaktaris


Guatemala Implements Death Penalty Decisions of Inter-American Court on Human Rights

Death Penalty Worldwide has recently confirmed that between 2005 and February 2012, the Supreme Court of Justice of Guatemala commuted all pending death sentences to the maximum imprisonment for the offender’s crimes. As a result, there currently are no death row inmates in Guatemala. The commutations were issued in response to a set of two rulings issued in 2005 by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights: Raxcacó Reyes v. Guatemala and Fermín Ramírez v. Guatemala. The Inter-American Court found that Guatemala’s death penalty violated the country’s international obligations in several respects: because it allowed for the mandatory death penalty, because it created new crimes that were punishable by death, and because there was no clemency process. 

Guatemala is considered an abolitionist de facto state by the United Nations, meaning that it has not carried out any executions in the past 10 years.  Guatemala has not executed anyone since 2000. Guatemala has also twice voted in favor of the United Nations General Assembly’s Resolution to institute a universal moratorium on the use of the death penalty, in 2007 and 2010 (in 2008, Guatemala abstained from voting).

The commutations by the Supreme Court were an enormously significant step forward for this Central American country.  However, in Guatemala the death penalty still exists in national legislation and therefore its courts may pronounce death sentences at any time. Currently, Guatemala has a de facto moratorium on the application of the death penalty, primarily because of the legal vacuum regarding the procedure to request a pardon.  Over the past few years, including in 2012, Congress has proposed three bills establishing a clemency procedure with a view to resuming executions. The first two bills were vetoed by the president, and the most recent one is still making its way through the legislative process.   The current President has resolved to carry out executions during his tenure, but until Guatemala adopts a clemency procedure any executions would violate Guatemala’s international obligations.

Today, 15 years after the peace accords were signed, Guatemala is plagued by widespread insecurity, violence, and crime.   In her March 2012 visit to Guatemala, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, recommended that Guatemala abolish the death penalty. Nevertheless, abolition is not likely to happen any time soon because during the current period of high public insecurity, certain sectors persistently advocate for its reinstatement.  

You can find Death Penalty Worldwide's full entry for Guatemala here.

-- Vanessa Arroyo Boy