An Iranian girl, Atefeh Rajabi, was just 16 years old when she was hanged for “acts incompatible with chastity”. According to reports, she was suffering from mental illness at the time of her “crime” and during her trial. She was not represented in court by a lawyer.
The Supreme Court upheld her sentence before she was publicly hanged in northern Iran in August 2004. The man accused in the same case was sentenced to 100 lashes and released after the sentence was carried out. Iran often claims it does not execute children.
An ugly reality worldwide
The death of Atefeh Rajabi was certainly one of the most shocking cases taken up in the past year by anti-death penalty campaigners. Yet the story of her trial and execution is consistent with the ugly reality of the death penalty throughout the world. There is widespread discrimination in its use, thousands of people are executed each year after unfair trials, and every execution is a brutal violation of the most basic human right - the right to life.
In 2004 Amnesty International recorded nearly 3,800 executions in 25 countries. At least 7,400 people were sentenced to death in 64 countries. These figures are only the tip of the iceberg though, since many countries carry out executions under a shroud of secrecy.
There is a growing international consensus that the death penalty is a cruel and inhuman punishment. The majority of the world’s countries have now abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Since 1990, more than 40 countries have abolished it for all crimes, including five in 2004 - Bhutan, Greece, Samoa, Senegal and Turkey.
The death penalty in Asia
Despite the global trend towards abolition, 16 countries in our region retain and use the death penalty, while Sri Lanka has reactivated its death penalty system. As well, the Asian region has the lowest rate of support for international agreements that aim to limit and ultimately abolish the death penalty.
Last year China executed at least 3,400 people and passed more than 6,000 death sentences. While a senior Chinese legislator estimated in March 2004 that the government executed “nearly 10,000” people each year, the true figure is impossible to confirm. The death penalty applies to a wide range of offences. Torture and ill-treatment are used to extract confessions and there is often political pressure and interference in the courts.
Vietnam is still ranked among the highest executing countries in the world, with at least 64 executions recorded in 2004, although the true figure is certainly higher. Singapore has executed more than 400 people since 1991, giving it the highest execution rate per head of population in the world.
Last year, India carried out its first execution since 1997, and Indonesia carried out its first in more than three years when it shot three foreign nationals for drug trafficking. There are worrying signs that both countries may execute more people in the coming months.
Following the murders of a High Court judge and a police officer in November 2004, the Sri Lankan Government announced a return to the death penalty for rape, murder and narcotics dealings. Sri Lanka has not carried out an execution since 1976.
In addition to the widespread use of the death penalty in Asia, there are several emerging challenges - and opportunities - for the international campaign to abolish the death penalty.
By any measure, China executes more people than the rest of the world combined. There are serious flaws in a criminal justice system that sends so many people to the execution grounds.
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