Death Penalty Worldwide



The Consequences of Wrongfully Convicting the World’s Longest Serving Death Row Inmate

Iwao Hakamada, a man widely believed to be the world’s longest serving death row inmate, may have been serving time for nothing at all.  On March 27, 2014, the Shizouka District Court in Japan suspended his sentence because new evidence suggests that he was wrongfully convicted.  Mr. Hakamada was sentenced to death in 1968 for murder, but new DNA evidence points to his innocence, leading many to believe that his original conviction was based on falsified evidence.  The Court released Hakamada from the Tokyo Detention House after his petition for a retrial was granted.  To date, Hakamda has served nearly 50 years on death row; 30 of those years were spent in solitary confinement.  Hakamada is not the first person in Japan to be wrongfully convicted, but his case exemplifies the abhorrent consequences of violations to the right to a fair trial.

Hakamada’s retrial represents the 6th time since 1945 that the courts in Japan have granted a retrial in a death penalty case. Incidences of wrongful convictions are being uncovered more frequently in Japan.  This may be on account of pretrial detentions in police custody, the daiyo kangoku system, which can lead to lengthy interrogations.  The United Nations Committee Against Torture has expressed concern about the system, stating that the lack of effective monitoring and reported abuse raised concerns about human rights violations.  Indeed, physical and psychological torture during interrogations  is a significant source of false confessions.  Iwao Hakamda’s interrogation lasted for 20 days, and although he confessed during the interrogation, he ultimately claimed he was innocent at trial. About half of the people on death row in Japan claim they are not guilty of all or part of the charges for which they have been convicted.

If exonerated, Hakamada has a right to compensation under Japanese and international law.  Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights protects the right to compensation, which can be satisfied in several ways.  Conferring discretion to a judicial body to determine compensation is the means that Japan has chosen to fulfill its obligations under the ICCPR.  Article 40 of the Japanese Constitution stipulates that courts will decide the amount of compensation as provided by law.  The Criminal Compensation Act further provides that the amount of compensation shall be determined after considering the length of detention, mental and physical loss suffered, and negligence by the police and prosecutors.

Hakamada’s resentencing, accompanied by public outrage, will add further ammunition to the movement for criminal justice reform in Japan.  For more information on wrongful convictions under international law, see the Death Penalty Worldwide’s post on innocence and wrongful convictions here.

-- Shubra Ohri


The World’s Top Executioner: Capital Punishment in China

Death Penalty Worldwide has just updated its research on capital punishment in China. China executes thousands of people every year, but it’s difficult to provide exact figures because of the secrecy surrounding executions.  Another non-governmental organization, the Dui Hua Foundation, estimates that China executed 3000 people in 2013—more than the rest of the world put together.  

The number of executions in China is particularly troubling in light of reports that capital defendants do not receive fair trials according to international standards. Suspects are sometimes denied access to attorneys, lawyers are barred from representing certain clients, and courts withhold evidence in politically sensitive cases. Moreover, defendants are presumed guilty and must prove their innocence, with the result that 99.9% of criminal defendants are found guilty.  Appeals are rarely successful. Recent cases have also raised the concern that the death penalty is applied primarily against the poor. In September 2013, an impoverished street vendor who claimed to have stabbed two officers in self-defense during an interrogation was executed for murder. His attorney maintains that key evidence was missing during his trial. In contrast, Gu Kailai, the wife of former Politburo member Bo Xilai and daughter of a revolutionary general, was given a suspended death sentence in August 2012 on grounds of mental illness after being convicted of planning and carrying out the murder of a foreign businessman.

Despite China’s seeming enthusiasm for the death penalty, the country has enacted important reforms in recent years aimed at reducing the total number of executions.  In 2007, the Supreme People’s Court reclaimed its right to review every death sentence, after which the estimated number of executions was reduced by half. China took a further step away from the death penalty in 2011 by reducing the number of death-eligible crimes from 68 to 55 and banning the death penalty against those aged over 75 in an amendment to the Criminal Law. Recently, the president of the Supreme People’s Court publicly urged courts to hand out fewer death sentences. China may be far from abolishing capital punishment, but these are noteworthy reforms for the world’s top executioner.

Although the Chinese government is striving to curb its use of the death penalty through legal reform, it has yet to ratify any international treaties that impose restrictions on the use of the death penalty. China is not a party to the ICCPR and has repeatedly voted against the UN General Assembly’s Moratorium on the Death Penalty Resolution. Even in the absence of international commitments, China should enact reforms that will enhance fair trial protections and reduce the arbitrary application of the death penalty. The extent to which Chinese leaders are willing to implement additional domestic reforms will be paramount in China’s efforts to reduce the volume of executions.

-- Jee Won Oh

You can access Death Penalty Worldwide’s full research on capital punishment in China here.  


Capital Punishment in Eritrea

Death Penalty Worldwide recently updated its research on the death penalty in Eritrea. You can read the full Eritrea report here.


Political Fragmentation and the Death Penalty under the Palestinian National Authority

Since its establishment in 1994, the Palestinian National Authority (“PNA”) has issued 131 death sentences against Palestinian civilians charged with various crimes. To date, at least 29 of these sentences have been carried out. Sixteen executions were carried out by the Hamas de facto government in Gaza, which resumed executions in 2009, while the remaining 13 executions were carried out by the PNA in the West Bank. All of the PNA’s executions were carried out before 2005.  This last fact illustrates the divergent policies by the PNA in the West Bank and the Gaza de facto government regarding the issue of the death penalty.

Indeed, one of the main barriers to abolition of capital punishment in the PNA is the state of deep fragmentation that characterizes the PNA in the Occupied Territories (“POT”). This fragmentation is partly political:  in 2007, inter-Palestinian clashes in the Gaza strip between Fatah and Hamas factions led to the establishment of two contesting Palestinian authorities, one in the West Bank controlled by President Mahmud Abbas and the Fatah, and another in the Gaza strip as a de facto administration controlled by Hamas. The question of the death penalty became a highly political issue between these two parties in 2009 after president Abbas’ term in office expired.  No elections could be held to replace him because Hamas and Fatah failed to reach a political settlement regarding the necessity for new elections.  The political differences between the two authorities are exacerbated by the Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip that has isolated Gaza from the outside world and from the rest of the West Bank, as well as the international political and economic pressure exerted on the PNA, mainly by the American administration and Israel, to resist accommodating Hamas (thereby preventing national unity in the POT). This inability to hold new elections,  amongst other things, meant that there was a constitutional vacuum regarding the question of the ratification of death sentences, since imposing the death penalty under the Palestinian judicial system requires the approval of the PNA President. This constitutional vacuum led the Interior Ministry in Gaza to resume carrying out death sentences without the mandated presidential approval.

The interior minister’s decision in Gaza to carry out death sentences has more to do with inter-Palestinian political struggles over constitutional power than with the actual debate on the question of the death penalty in Palestinian society. The decision was designed to challenge President Mahmoud Abbas’s presidential authority on the one hand, and on the other, to assert Hamas’ political authority and constitutional legitimacy as the sole legally elected government in the Palestinian occupied territory. This decision is consistent with a growing political and legal strategy adopted by both sides that adds to an ever-growing number of human rights violations and breaches of the rule of law in an effort to oppress political opponents on both sides in the controlled area. As such, the resumption of death penalty was accompanied by other human rights violations like widespread torture, the increased use of military courts for both criminal and political prisoners, and a general disrespect of the law.     

But the fragmentation in the PNA over the application of the death penalty is not merely political:  its origins are rooted in the unique and complex legal, geographical and historical context of the POT and the creation of the PNA.   No fewer than three different Penal Codes entrench the death penalty. These codes are the Jordanian Penal Law No. 16 of 1960 which contains sixteen different crimes punishable by death (this code is applicable to the West Bank); the Penal Law No. 74 of 1936 amended by Egyptian Military Decree No. 555 of 1957, which contains fifteen different capital crimes (this code is applicable in the Gaza strip); and lastly the PLO Revolutionary Code of 1979 that was applicable to the diaspora and which contains 42 different crimes punishable by death. These different codes are, as one can imagine, archaic, ambivalent in their language, and most important many of the capital offenses they define have to do with political crimes against the states.

Jurisdiction over capital crimes is also fragmented: some capital crimes are referred to military courts or state national security courts, and others are referred to civilian courts. This fragmentation creates problems such as the arbitrary use of a court by the state, or civilians being charged in military courts, thus violating their rights to due process as well as their rights to appeal.  The fragmentation of the judicial system and the involvement of military courts in civilian life weakens the power of the judicial system to develop better legal protections for individuals charged with capital crimes.

The judicial system is further compromised by Israel’s application of its own legal system in the occupied territories, which weakens the PNA judicial system and prevents it from developing a strong, independent and coherent judiciary that can restrain the executive branch.

There are of course many other continuing obstacles to the ongoing attempts by civil society, legislatures and national and international bodies to bring the PNA to abolish the death penalty - such as the ongoing Israeli occupation, the Israeli use of Palestinian collaborators for targeted killing, the  enforcement of  Israel’s security apparatus that undermines the PNA’s effective control over its population in terms of maintaining law and order, and finally the ongoing political crises of 2007 and the constitutional crises of 2009. One possible and effective solution to these crises would be the creation of a new unitary PNA Penal Code and the abandonment of the other Penal Codes along with the death penalties they mandate. To reach this outcome, however, the PNA must hold new elections or establish an interim government with Hamas that will have the mandate to revise the PNA Penal Code. In the short term, the president of the PNA, Mr. Abbas, can issue a presidential decree declaring that he will not sign any execution orders until a more modern and unified Penal Code is implemented. One more step towards abolition would be for the PNA to sign the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, in order to establish an international obligation for the future PNA government to abolish the capital punishment in law. 


-- Tamer Massalha                             


Death row kids

Yemen is a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which expressly prohibits the execution of individuals who were under the age of 18 at the time of the offense for which they were convicted.  Article 31 of Yemen’s Evidence Code also expressly prohibits the execution of a person who at the time of the alleged crime was a minor: “If the perpetrator was between fifteen and eighteen of age he shall be sentenced to no more than half the maximum penalty prescribed by the law, and when such punishment is the death penalty he shall be sentenced instead to imprisonment for a term of not less than three years and not more than ten years.” Article 47 of the Yemeni constitution states that, “there shall be no crime nor a punishment without a reference in the law.” Furthermore, Article 48 (a) states that, “the state will ensure personal freedom, dignity and security.” And Article 48 (h) of the same constitution states that “physical or psychological torture is a crime punishable by the law.

These constitutional principles taken together mean that, in theory, there should be no Yemeni children on death row. However, as a Human Rights Watch (“HRW”) report shows,[1] Yemen is one of four countries that still executes children in disregard of both national and international law.

According to the HRW report, as of March 4, 2013 there were 23 juveniles on death row in Yemen, all of whom had been convicted and sentenced to death despite being under the age of 18 at the time of the crime, and despite serious allegations that they were systematically tortured during their interrogation.

Juvenile convictions are often obtained in Yemen because of the simple fact that many individuals have no governmental ID or birth certificate to prove their age at the time of the crime or at the time of the future execution. As such, Yemen fails twice in observing its obligations under international law. First, each state is obligated to provide children with a universal, mandatory, free and adequate registration system. Such an obligation is widely recognized under various instruments of international law. For example, the right of registration is recognized in Article 24 of the ICCPR that states, “Every child shall be registered immediately after birth.”   It had been also recognized in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.  In its 1997 “Guidelines for Action on Children in the Criminal Justice System,” the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) stated that, “States should ensure the effectiveness of their birth registration programmes.  In those instances where the age of the child involved in the justice system is unknown, measures should be taken to ensure that the true age of the child is ascertained by independent and objective assessment.

The second failure has to do with the judiciary’s reluctance to protect juvenile offenders by giving them access to a reliable medical test to determine their actual age and by giving them the right to contest their age determination. A child without a provable date of birth is extremely vulnerable, since he will not have the legal and procedural rights and assurances that are linked to his juvenile status, particularly in relation to sentencing.     

The risk of sentencing children to death becomes more pronounced when the judiciary fails to ensure that the burden of proof for establishing a juvenile’s age falls on the state. Such standards were established by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in its 10th General Comment where the Committee stated: “If there is no proof of age, the child is entitled to a reliable medical or social investigation that may establish his/her age and, in the case of conflict or inconclusive evidence, the child shall have the right to the rule of the benefit of the doubt.”  In other words, in case of doubt as to a defendant’s actual age, the court must observe and extend the presumption of innocence and the doubt shall be interpreted in favor of the suspect.

However, as was documented by HRW, in many cases the Yemeni courts and the justice system in general failed to observe these well-established international standards and chose to ignore the claims and the evidence raised by juveniles, making it virtually impossible, without the existence of official documents, to convince the court of the juvenile’s age at the time of the crime. By doing so, the justice system denies children the protection of Yemen’s law forbidding the imposition of the death penalty on juvenile offenders. By denying them their right to prove their age, the court fails its obligation to protect and observe the right of minors not to be sentenced as adults, in accordance with article 31 of the Yemeni Evidence Law that clearly states that: “A person does not have a full criminal liability if he was less than eighteen at the time of the committed act, and if the age of the accused cannot be established the judge must estimate his age with help of an expert.

Finally, the HRW report shows that some of these juveniles were sentenced to death based on confessions that were extracted by torture and cruel and degrading treatment. This practice must stop immediately. Yemen’s government and its judiciary must discharge their responsibility to protect children in conflict with the law. They must investigate the allegations of widespread torture in its prisons and during police investigations. The government should also re-open all criminal cases which ended with death sentences for alleged juvenile offenders.

For more information, watch this video of Human Rights Watch’s report:


--Tamer Massalha

[1] Human Rights Watch, “Look at Us with a Merciful Eye”, March 4, 2013.  


Malaysia Should Follow Singapore's Lead and Repeal the Mandatory Death Penalty for Drug Offenses

In the past year, a significant number of foreign nationals have been sentenced to death in Malaysia for drug trafficking. Malaysia’s Dangerous Drugs Act (1952) is one of the strictest drug laws in the world, carrying the mandatory death penalty for possession and distribution of drugs.

The mandatory death penalty for drug traffickers is inherently unfair in its application. Many individuals sentenced to death under Malaysia’s harsh drug laws are foreign nationals who serve as drug mules, the most vulnerable and arguably the least responsible drug trafficking offenders. Drug mules are paid by distributors to simply transport drugs across international borders. Singapore, which also imposes the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, decided last year to factor in the extent of involvement and to allow judges to give life sentences to drug couriers. The amendment generated a landmark ruling in November that lifted the death penalty on a drug trafficker for the first time. Unlike its neighbor, Malaysia has continued its tough approach to international drug trafficking. Numerous foreign nationals from several countries, including Sweden, Nigeria, Iran, Thailand, Mexico, Uzbekistan and Germany, are facing the gallows for their arguably minimal part in the distribution of illegal narcotics.

Foreign nationals are intrinsically more vulnerable as capital defendants. They face language and cultural barriers, lack knowledge of the Malaysian legal system, have limited access to legal counsel, and are far from their support networks. Such obstacles may cause foreign nationals on death row to fare worse than their Malaysian counterparts in an already arbitrary mandatory sentencing regime.

Recent studies in the United States have shown that there is no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. This raises the important question: will Malaysia reform its flawed mandatory death penalty system? During 2014, Malaysia has seen two instances of a possible reversal of recent trends. The first was the release of two brothers on death row in January, followed by the stay of another execution in February, both rare occurrences in Malaysia. While these two developments do not give us an answer, they look to be a step in the right direction for Malaysia moving forward.  

-- Edward Jun and Jee Won Oh


India’s Supreme Court Draws Upon Human Rights Standards to Commute Death Sentences

On January 21, 2014, India’s Supreme Court reaffirmed the right to life in a landmark decision that cited international human rights standards.  In Shatrughan Chauhan & Another vs Union of India & Others, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of 15 prisoners.  The decision strongly emphasized the human rights of death row prisoners – denouncing such practices as executing individuals with mental illness, solitary confinement, and prolonged detention on death row.

Much of the court’s decision focused on the nature of the clemency process under Indian law.  Indian law provides that death row inmates can apply for clemency by submitting “mercy petitions” to the President.  The court held that “[m]ercy jurisprudence is part of an evolving standard of decency, which is the hallmark of society.”  The court repeatedly noted that clemency is not merely a matter of grace, but is a constitutional duty of great significance that must be exercised responsibly and expeditiously.  

The Supreme Court faulted the executive for its inexcusable delay in considering the clemency petitions of 13 petitioners.  Drawing heavily on the jurisprudence of the Privy Council and the European Court on Human Rights, the court reasoned that delay in the execution of a death sentence causes psychological torture.  The court observed that “undue, inordinate, and unreasonable delay” in carrying out the death sentence constitutes torture and justifies commutation to life imprisonment. 

Equally important, the court commuted the death sentences of two prisoners based on evidence that they suffered from mental illness.  The court embraced international norms prohibiting the execution of prisoners with mental illness, citing Resolution 2000/65 of the former UN Human Rights Commission calling upon all states to refrain from executing any person who suffers from “any form of mental disorder,” as well as a 1996 report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, and the UN General Assembly’s 2007 resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.  In the case of Maganlal Barela, the court condemned the failure of the executive branch to consider evidence of the petitioner’s mental illness as grounds for clemency. 

The court also addressed the issue of solitary confinement, finding that death row inmates may not be held in solitary confinement until their mercy petitions have been denied.  According to the court, solitary confinement constitutes “additional and separate punishment” that is unconstitutional.  Further, the court issued guidelines for the clemency process to protect the rights of death row prisoners moving forward.  The judges held that prisoners have a right to legal aid to prepare legal challenges to the clemency process and to be informed of the result of their mercy petition in writing.  In addition, prison officials must ensure that prisoners receive regular mental health evaluations and be given “appropriate medical care.”  Finally, the court determined that the government must carry out post-mortem examinations of executed prisoners to provide the courts with data on the cause of death, which will allow for consideration of whether hanging constitutes cruel and inhuman punishment.

Less than a month after this landmark decision, the Supreme Court commuted the death sentences of three individuals convicted of the 1991 assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.  The Court reasoned that the unreasonable delay in considering the inmates’ mercy petitions, a delay of more than 11 years, warranted a commutation of their death sentences.  It also rebuffed the Attorney General’s argument that in order to have their sentences commuted, death row inmates had to prove actual harm occasioned by the delay.  The court reaffirmed the fundamental rights of all citizens, including death row inmates.

The decisions come at an especially important time in India, as it had recently begun carrying out executions again after what many considered to be an undeclared moratorium on the death penalty.  The decisions have also re-ignited the public debate over the death penalty in India.


-- Sandra Babcock and Shubra Ohri


Follow Up on Prieto v. Clark Reaffirms Important Decision

Last Friday, Judge Brinkema reaffirmed her earlier ruling that it is unconstitutional to automatically put death row inmates in solitary confinement.  She rejected Virginia’s arguments that she should delay the implementation of her order on the grounds that it would be too difficult for the prisons to make the changes that she demanded.  Before her November 2013 ruling, capital offenders in Virginia were automatically placed in solitary confinement upon sentencing, without the possibility of subsequent review.  Judge Brinkema’s ruling is significant in bringing US practices one step closer to being in line with international human rights law.  Her holding is consistent with the growing international consensus that recognizes the cruel and inhuman aspects of solitary confinement.


Chinese Version of the Manual "Representing Individuals Facing the Death Penalty" Published Online for Use by the World’s Lawyers

On the occasion of Cities for Life Day on November 30, the Taiwan Alliance to End the Death Penalty (TAEDP) and the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty are proud to announce the online publication of the Chinese version of Representing Individuals Facing the Death Penalty: A Best Practices Manual. This publication is intended for lawyers who defend people facing the death penalty around the world.

This guide was made possible through cooperation between Death Penalty Worldwide, a website managed by Sandra Babcock, Professor at the Center for International Human Rights, Northwestern University School of Law; the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty; and lawyers from around 15 countries including Taiwan and China. The traditional Chinese version follows the publication of the English and French editions last May. It was revised by TAEDP, lawyers Weng Guoyan, Li Ailun, Chen Youning and Professor Jin Menghua. This version is now available for download by defence lawyers working on capital cases. (A simplified Chinese version will soon follow after revisions by lawyer Teng Biao of China Against the Death Penalty.)  You can download the guide here:

In a statement welcoming the publication of the Chinese version, Prof Babcock said: “Taiwanese and Chinese lawyers are facing enormous difficulties when they defend people facing the death penalty. Those cases are a lot thornier than the average criminal case. I hope this manual will be useful to them and will help them advocate more efficiently for their clients’ rights to a fair trial, from the time of their arrest to their final appeal.”

TAEDP, the Legal Aid Foundation and the Human Rights Commission of the Taipei Bar Association are planning a series of workshops in the New Year to teach lawyers how to best use the guide. The three organizations are also planning to adapt the manual to publish a guide dedicated to defence lawyers in capital cases in Taiwan specifically by the end of 2014.

For more information, watch the following videos:

  1. Sandra Babcock presents Representing Individuals Facing the Death Penalty: A Best Practices Manual
  2. Weng Guoyan of the Human Rights Commission of the Taipei Bar Association explains the difficulties lawyers experience when representing defendants in capital cases in Taiwan and how useful the guide is going to be.
  3. Teng Biao of China Against the Death Penalty explains the difficulties faced by lawyers in capital cases in China and the role of the guide.




Death Row and Solitary Confinement – an Unconstitutional Practice

On November 12, 2013, Judge Leonie M. Brinkema of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that automatic and permanent placement of death row prisoners in solitary confinement violates the U.S. Constitution in Prieto v. Clark. In the United States, a majority of prisoners on death row will serve years in solitary confinement, awaiting execution.  Although international human rights bodies have recognized that solitary confinement can constitute a form of torture; Prieto is one of a few U.S. cases that highlight the inhuman aspects of prolonged solitary confinement.

In Virginia, capital offenders are automatically placed in solitary confinement upon sentencing, without the possibility of subsequent classification review.  Death row prisoners are isolated in their cells for 23 hours a day, the lights are always on, and they are only allowed five hours of recreation a week.  The judge described these conditions as “dehumanizing.” 

In her holding, Judge Brinkema commented that while not all incidences of solitary confinement are unconstitutional, conditions that constitute “atypical and significant, hardship” without the potential for reclassification violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The plaintiff’s confinement, in this case, was held to be such a hardship.    Judge Brinkema noted that the prisoner’s solitary confinement furthered few, if any, penological interests.

Solitary confinement, in combination with the mental torment of a pending execution, causes severe mental suffering.  The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture recently concluded that solitary confinement can amount to torture because of the devastating and irreversible psychological effects it has on detainees.  Likewise, the Human Rights Committee concluded that prolonged solitary confinement can amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. The UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment explains that torture includes “the holding of a detained or imprisoned person in conditions which deprive him, temporarily or permanently, of the use of any of his natural senses.”

Although Prieto does not cite this international authority, the court’s conclusions are consistent with the growing consensus that solitary confinement is unnecessarily cruel and inhumane.  Judge Brinkema’s holding, which explicitly recognizes the cruel and inhuman aspects of solitary confinement, represents a step in the right direction.

- Shubra Ohri