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Egypt's capital punishment drops: Amnesty report

March study on capital punishment by Amnesty International reports rise of executions in only some Middle Eastern countries; Ahram Online queries whether death sentences are a new regional tool to quell the Arab Spring

Osman El Sharnoubi, Thursday 29 Mar 2012
Amnesty International
Partial view of Amnesty International's report Death Sentences and Executions 2011 (Image: www.amnesty.org)
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Middle Eastern governments are increasingly using execution as a method to quell uprisings, claims British daily the Guardian Tuesday, based on the findings printed in the latest Amnesty International annual report on capital punishment. Amnesty International, an international civil society group campaigning for human rights, published the document on their website in March this year. 

While the Guardian reported a sharp rise in executions in Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, according to Amnesty International the number of executions decreased elsewhere in the region.

In comparison to 2010, the number of executions during 2011 was actually less in Egypt (one in 2011 compared to four in 2010), Bahrain (none in 2011 compared to one in 2010) and Yemen (decreasing from 53 to 41).  

Iran has the lion's share of confirmed instances of the death sentence being carried out. Amnesty's report recorded 360 executions, 50 of which were public, which is an increase of over 100 compared to 2010.

Amnesty's study repeatedly questions the credibility of official figures in many countries, claiming, for example, that a further 274 executions in Iran were not officially logged. The same goes for China, for which the organisation refuses to publish figures. From reports the number, Amnesty writes, is in the "thousands."

The Guardian's claim that Middle Eastern countries are now using the death sentence as a counter-measure to dissenting protesters is challenged by the situation in Egypt.

Egypt successfully implemented 185 death sentences in 2010 but carried out 62 less in 2011. This number is particularly striking due to the arbitrary nature of the judicial system in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) assumed power in February 2011, over 12,000 civilians, mostly protesters, have faced military trials, often on trumped up charges without lawyers, the right to call witnesses or to appeal.  

In addition, the SCAF added new offences to the range of crimes punishable by death in Egypt, including rape, sectarian violence and "thuggery," the Amnesty report said.

However, according to Amnesty, only 17 death sentences were passed in these military tribunals contributing to the overall number of 123 receiving the death penalty last year, compared to 185 in 2010.

Mona Seif, a member of No to Military Trials For Civilians, an Egyptian civil society group campaigning to free prisoners and to end the practice, said she didn't believe that the death penalty per se was a weapon used to quell dissent. She added that only one activist potentially faced execution from a military court but his case was then handed over to civil jurisdiction.

Seif also believed that it was very possible for death sentences awarded by military courts to be repealed, citing a recent case where a 19-year-old was sentenced to life by a military tribunal but on appeal was found not guilty and freed.

Egypt's ruling military council has been harshly criticised for it brutal methods of putting down protests. Its military tribunals have been condemned as a tool to control and persecute dissenters. Nevertheless handing out death sentences appears to be subject to strict judiciary rules, even within the military courts, which are notoriously unregulated and opaque.

Amnesty's report also highlighted exceptional cases where judicial systems were non-operational such as in Libya.

It mentioned the extra-judicial executions during the Libyan revolution, which were carried out by both the forces loyal to the late president Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels. The ousted leader himself was, of course, executed without trial.

In Bahrain, where the regime faced a serious threat of being overthrown by an ongoing uprising started in February 2011, four more death sentences were announced in 2011 than in 2010 but none were carried out.

Syria, on the other hand, is the clearest case where the regime may be carrying out executions in reaction to the ongoing uprising, which began in March last year.

The regime issued a law late-December 2011, as the revolution was gathering support, "allowing for a death sentence for anyone providing, or helping to provide, arms 'intended for the carrying out of terrorist acts'," the report said.

The number of executions in Syria in 2011 is, however, not obtainable, Amnesty added.

Other than Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq are the only other countries where it is confirmed that executions soared in 2011 compared to 2010. The numbers more than tripled in both countries in a year, rising from 27 to 82 in Saudi Arabia and from 1 to 68 in Iraq.

It is not clear however if the executions are, as the Guardian claims, to "deter the wave of uprisings sweeping the Arab countries."

 As Amnesty says about Saudi Arabia, the death penalty in 2011 was applied to "a wide range of offences ranging from murder, rape, robbery and kidnapping to, sorcery and drugs-related offence."

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