Years ago, a local journalist offered me, as a representative of Amnesty International, to take part in a radio programme on the death penalty. He told me he wanted to talk about this punishment through three personal stories. He said he’d let me choose the cases, but suggested some options: an unfaithful wife stoned to death in Nigeria, a political dissident in North Korea or a child offender in Iran. For example.
I loved the idea. The programme had many listeners and it was going to be a great opportunity to raise awareness. I discussed it with the death penalty expert in my local group, a committed volunteer since 1981. He liked the idea too, but with a caveat. The cases had to be different. More than 600 people were executed in 22 countries in 2014 (probably many more since Chinese and North Korean numbers are not reported), hundreds more were sentenced to death, and currently about 19,000 people await their execution in 58 different countries (find detailed data from Amnesty International here). And the hard truth is that most of the people in death corridors have committed awful blood crimes.
My colleague (and friend) made a very important point: If we want to abolish the death penalty in the world, we need to do it right, we need to say upfront that we believe the death penalty is a violation of the right to life, always, with no exception, no matter the crime, no matter the method of execution. It is pretty simple, but profoundly complex at the same time. The death penalty is wrong, it is always wrong, and picking and choosing sympathetic cases does not convey the message clearly enough.
My friend was spot on. Although I have already forgotten the exact cases covered in that radio programme, I do remember we did our best to keep the balance between clearly obnoxious cases (the ones the journalist had in mind) and not so evidently unjust ones (the statistically most significant ones).
Yesterday, a jury decided Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was responsible for the 2013 bombing at the Boston Marathon, which caused three deaths and tens of injured people. The jury voted unanimously for capital punishment.
There is no doubt Tsarnaev committed one of the worst kinds of crimes, and justice must be made, restored. Cases like his test our personal and social commitment to human rights. Today, I remember my friend’s wise advice. If we truly believe that the death penalty is in itself a violation of the right to life, we must raise our voices out loud: Don’t execute Dzhokhar Tsarnaev!
(While I write this, I’ve just read that an Egyptian court has sentenced Mohammed Morsi to death for passing state secrets for mass prison break. Morsi should not be executed either.)