Death Penalty Worldwide



Undaunted by Rising Anti-Internationalist Phobia, Death Penalty Abolitionists Persevere

October 10, 2018

It is a trying time to be an internationally-minded human rights advocate. Just this week, the United States announced its withdrawal from two international treaties—including the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations—in response to litigation before the International Court of Justice. Denouncing the ICJ as “politicized and ineffective,” the United States stated it would be reviewing all treaties granting the ICJ binding jurisdiction to resolve treaty disputes. The United States seems to have forgotten that it invoked the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations when it sued Iran over the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979. In that case, the ICJ handed the United States a victory—but our current government officials have short memories. They petulantly object to every legal holding that criticizes, even in the most measured terms, actions taken by the United States. The Trump Administration’s actions shame the memory of those—including U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt—who sought a post-war international order that would use law, rather than brute force, to resolve disputes.

But amidst this distressing news, we take heart from the implacable march toward abolition of the death penalty around the world. The most extraordinary news today came from the government of Malaysia, which announced that it would abolish the death penalty, “full stop.” Malaysia has suspended all executions and intends to move swiftly to pass appropriate legislation. The import of this announcement cannot be overstated. Malaysia has been a staunch supporter of the death penalty in a region that has long resisted international trends toward abolition. It has the potential to sway other countries in the region, such as Singapore and Indonesia, who remain in the ranks of retentionists.

Even in countries that seem far from abolition, abolitionists continue their fight to save the lives of those on death row. Our colleagues at Justice Project Pakistan are today screening a reenactment of twenty-four hours in the life of a condemned man in solitary confinement on death row. We are live-streaming this event at Cornell, where we express solidarity with JPP to expose injustice in the application of the death penalty there.

Our colleagues at Penal Reform International have worked with us to research and expose the plight of women on death row around the world, and these efforts promise to bring a new legion of feminist activists into the struggle to abolish the death penalty. (For World Day, we produced a factsheet illuminating prison conditions for women on death row, which is based on our research published in “Judged for More than Her Crime: a Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty.” This research was also cited by ten UN Special Rapporteurs in a statement issued today.) Reprieve continues its efforts to vindicate the rights of persons facing the death penalty in all corners of the world, and we are grateful for their support of our work on behalf of death-sentenced prisoners in Malawi and Tanzania. The World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, under the leadership of Aurélie Plaçais, has inspired activists around the world to convene workshops, hold press conferences, and educate the public about capital punishment. A shout out as well to our friends at Project 39A in Delhi, LBH Masyarakat in Indonesia, the Legal Defense and Assistance Project in Nigeria, and the Death Penalty Project in London. And our Makwanyane Institute Fellows across Africa are convening trainings to equip lawyers to effectively defend men and women who are facing capital charges. As I write, a group of Nigerian lawyers have convened in Lagos to attend the first Nigerian iteration of the Makwanyane Institute under the leadership of former Makwanyane fellow Angela Uwandu.

In our current political environment in the United States, it seems appropriate to note that many abolitionist organizations are led by women—including Reprieve, JPP, the World Coalition—and of course, the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. As women, we amplify the voices of our colleagues and work with young advocates to train the next generation of lawyers, scholars, and activists. Today, we send strength to all of those who continue this difficult fight around the world, and to the prisoners who remain under sentence of death.

--Sandra Babcock


New Cornell Study Documents Injustice and Discrimination Against Women Facing the Death Penalty Around the World

Geneva, Switzerland; September 18, 2018): Today the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide (CDPW) launched its new report, Judged for More Than Her Crime: A Global Overview of Women Facing the Death Penalty, at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. This groundbreaking study is the first to examine how and when women receive death sentences and the conditions under which they are detained on death row. The report documents widespread discriminatory practices in the capital prosecution and detention of women on death row, with particular focus on India, Indonesia, Jordan, Malawi, Pakistan, and the United States.

Although there are at least 500 women on death row worldwide, they have to date remained a largely invisible population, impeding efforts to understand patterns in capital sentencing and the operation of gender bias in the criminal legal system.  Most activists have assumed that women benefit from leniency in sentencing, but the authors conclude that women who violate gender stereotypes—for example, women who have multiple lovers, or who kill children—are more likely to receive death sentences. One criminal lawyer from Iran noted that courts trying women in capital cases judge their whole lives, not just the offense for which they are charged.  

Moreover, prosecutors and courts have cast women as “femme fatales” or “morally impure” to justify capital sentences. In the case of Brenda Andrews, sentenced to death in the United States, the jury heard details of her alleged extramarital affairs from years before the offense, and the prosecution showed her underwear before the jury during her capital prosecution—allegedly to show that she was not behaving as a grieving widow after the offense.  As an appellate judge noted, Brenda was put on trial not only for murder but for being “a bad wife, a bad mother, and a bad woman.”

Female survivors of domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to unfair sentencing practices in countries that retain the death penalty. Many women on death row have been affected by gender-based violence and socio-economic deprivation. The report describes several cases of women sentenced to death for crimes committed while they were minors, often against older husbands to whom they had been forcibly married as children. These factors receive little to no attention from lawyers and courts. In Malawi, Alice Nungu received a death sentence for killing her husband after he attacked her and her elderly mother in a drunken rage.  The court never heard or considered evidence of her abuse in sentencing her to death.

Speaking from Ithaca, New York, Faculty Director Sandra Babcock said, “Hundreds of women have been unjustly sentenced to death around the world, yet their cases have been neglected by activists, scholars, and the international community. We hope that this report will draw attention to their plight and inspire courts and policymakers to modify their sentencing practices.”

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Women on DR Cover


Public Opinion and the Death Penalty: The Great Deception

As part of its International Legal Issues series, the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide recently released a new background factsheet on public opinion and the death penalty

Politicians in retentionist death penalty countries often resist abolition by claiming that a majority of the population supports the death penalty. Understanding the level of public support for capital punishment is therefore crucial to death penalty advocacy. The widespread assumption that public opinion favors capital punishment is not always true, however, and certainly not in such stark, simplistic terms. In fact, politicians often rely on opinion polls that suffer from serious methodological problems. Our new background factsheet therefore proposes a critical framework to assess public opinion polls and evaluate the public’s actual level of support for the death penalty. It does so in part by contrasting the most common types of polls with a recent groundbreaking series of more sophisticated opinion surveys that challenge many preconceived ideas about public opinion on capital punishment.

The first aspect to consider is oversimplification. Questions that seek to obtain a “yes” or “no” answer on the issue of capital punishment cannot fully grasp the complexity of individual positions. As several studies in retentionist countries show, not all those who support the death penalty do so under all circumstances, and many would support abolition in some cases. Moreover, it is important to distinguish between those who support a mandatory death penalty from those who favor a discretionary implementation of this practice, since the latter group of people are open to contemplating alternative sentences even for the most severe crimes.

The second aspect to consider is that people are generally misinformed about how the death penalty is implemented, and that, critically, their views tend to change according to the information they have. When confronted with the possibility of wrongful convictions, the lack of effectiveness of executions as a deterrent, and the global trend towards abolition, poll respondents in some cases retreat from their initial support for capital punishment. When confronted with real case scenarios, respondents who in theory support the death penalty for such crimes do not apply it consistently. Furthermore, even among those who support the idea of capital punishment, surveys have found that they do not oppose government abolition plans. In other words, support for the death penalty lacks depth, indicating that the death penalty is an unimportant issue to most people in comparison to other social concerns, such as employment and education. Finally, the evidence also suggests that public support for the death penalty diminishes after abolition, as people experience life in an execution-free society. Our research has not uncovered any cases of major political fallout from championing abolition.

In sum, assessing the public’s level of support for capital punishment requires more than confronting individuals with a single binary and abstract question on whether or not they approve of capital punishment. Individual opinions are malleable and depend on the available information. In order to gain a true understanding of current levels of support for the death penalty, it is essential to engage in more in-depth, nuanced analyses like those conducted in the studies we review. If governments that retain the death penalty intend to exploit public opinion on this issue for political purposes, we should hold them accountable to rigorous polling standards that reflect what people actually think about capital punishment.


-- Santiago Mollis


Zimbabwe Should Immediately Release Human Rights Lawyer Tendai Biti

August 9, 2018

Tendai Biti, human rights lawyer and respected public servant, has been arrested by Zimbabwean authorities on trumped-up charges that he incited violence in the wake of the contested Zimbabwe elections. Tendai is an active member of the opposition party and had expressed concerns about the validity of the election results. He had sought asylum in Zambia, and his lawyer there had obtained a court order preventing his extradition. In contravention of international law, the Zambian government disregarded the court order and extradited him. He is now in custody in Zimbabwe.

Tendai was a trainer at the 2017 Makwanyane Institute of the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide. We know him as a brilliant lawyer who is deeply committed to democracy and human rights.  Together with other African colleagues who attended the Makwanyane Institute, he founded Pan-African Defense Lawyers Against the Death Penalty (PANADEP). We call upon the Zimbabwe government to release Tendai immediately, to guarantee his rights under the Zimbabwe Constitution and international human rights law, to ensure his safety and humane treatment, and to dismiss all charges against him. 



Human rights lawyer Tendai Biti at the 2017 Makwanywane Institute for Capital Defenders


New Report Finds That Malawi’s Traditional Leaders Oppose the Death Penalty, Favor Rehabilitation

On 18 April 2018, the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide and Malawi’s Paralegal Advisory Services Institute (PASI) released their report on "Malawian Traditional Leaders’ Perspectives on Capital Punishment" before a group of public officials and stakeholders in Lilongwe.

The report analyses data from surveys of 102 traditional leaders in villages across Malawi. Clifford Msiska, the National Director of PASI, informed an audience in Lilongwe that over ninety percent of traditional leaders surveyed did not support the use of the death penalty to punish individuals convicted of murder.  Only six traditional leaders stated that death was the appropriate penalty for murder. The rest preferred a term of years, life imprisonment with opportunity for early release, or (least frequently of all) life imprisonment with no opportunity for release.

The report grew out of the Malawi Resentencing Project. Following the Malawi Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the mandatory death penalty in Kafantayeni and others v Attorney General, the inmates sentenced under the now-unconstitutional law each received new sentence hearings.  Of the more than 150 prisoners who were resentenced, 125 have now been released after serving their sentences. 

In preparation for the resentencing hearings, PASI paralegals observed that many of the village chiefs supported the prisoner’s release.  This ran counter to the popular view that traditional leaders supported the death penalty.  Since no data existed to support or refute this assumption, Cornell Law School’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide teamed up with PASI and the London-based NGO Reprieve to carry out a survey to ascertain traditional leaders’ views on the death penalty.  The survey focused on traditional leaders presiding over villages to which released prisoners had returned, sometimes decades after they had been sentenced to death.

The Cornell team that analyzed the survey responses found that traditional leaders opposed the death penalty for a variety of reasons.  The most common explanation was rooted in the belief that people can change—and that prison is a place for reform. Many noted that rehabilitation is impossible if a prisoner is executed. As one traditional leader noted, “There is no reform in death.”  Many traditional leaders also expressed concerns that innocent people could be hanged.

Mtilosera PindaniTraditional leaders also see the death penalty as enormously taxing on the community. Many families did not know whether their loved ones had been executed. For one family, the imposition of the death sentence was so shocking that his mother “mourned him for 2 weeks as if he was already dead.” Other families became convinced that the prisoner had been put to death. Many leaders noted that, rather than providing a sense of justice in the community and acting as a deterrent to others, losing a member of their community to a sentence of death “traumatized” local communities which have been left “in shock” and “depressed”. Members of close communities like those where many of the prisoners returned are often the indirect victims of a death sentence.

Closely linked to their conviction that prisoners are capable of reform is the notion that returning prisoners benefit the community and their family once released. Released prisoners have, according to the traditional leaders, served as mentors for young men and women who might be tempted to commit crime. One released former prisoner, Byson Kaula–who was wrongly convicted and sentenced to death–now works full time at Malawi’s only halfway house, counselling other recently released prisoners.

Another man, Mtilosera Pindani, has been elected traditional leader in his home village since his release. Countless others have married, had children, provided support to ailing parents, built schools, maintained roads, started businesses, and provided food from their farming.  The story of Malawi’s released prisoners is a story of individual redemption, and of communities made whole by their return

-- Sandra Babcock

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New Center Report: "Justice Denied: A Global Study of Wrongful Death Row Convictions"

On March 7, 2018, the Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide launched its new report entitled Justice Denied: A Global Study of Wrongful Death Row Convictions at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The report is a first-of-its-kind comparative study of the risk factors that increase the likelihood of wrongful convictions. The report illuminates the similarities in wrongful conviction risk factors in six countries across the geographical and political spectrum: Cameroon, Indonesia, Jordan, Malawi, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

What animates the report, however, is not just crisp analysis. Instead, stories about the wrongfully convicted people who populate death rows around the world bring this problem to life. These men and women languish with little hope of freedom—or even of living out their natural lives—for the very same reasons they were condemned in the first place: lack of resources and lack of effective counsel.

For capital defendants, poverty and injustice often go hand-in-hand. People who cannot afford to pay their own lawyers must accept whatever representation the state has chosen to fund. And most states grossly underfund and under-resource the public defenders and court-appointed counsel who defend those branded “the worst of the worst”. Low salaries, high caseloads, and difficult working conditions also deter experienced lawyers from taking these jobs.

Atfab PaintingAftab Bahadur was only 15 or 16 years old when he was convicted of killing a politically-connected woman and her two sons in Pakistan. At the time of his arrest, Aftab worked as a plumber’s apprentice. His meager wages weren’t enough to buy a lawyer’s time, so Aftab relied on his state-assigned counsel who failed to investigate even a basic biographical fact: Aftab’s age. Pakistani law forbids the execution of juveniles. But Aftab’s counsel never asked his age or gathered school records to confirm he was a child. So the judge, believing Aftab was 20 years old, sentenced him to death.

Though pro bono lawyers represented Aftab in post-conviction proceedings, by that time, 20 years had passed. Records corroborating the alibi Aftab had given his trial counsel had been destroyed. Aftab’s family was too poor to negotiate a private reprieve available under Shariah law. And the President rejected his clemency petition without meaningful review. As the execution date approached, both the head prison warden and a recanting witness pleaded for Aftab’s life. Their efforts were not enough. Aftab was executed on June 10, 2015.

Poor representation heightened Moctar Amadou and Salissou Moussa’s vulnerability as well. The two men, an uncle and nephew, were hauled before a military tribunal. Their village headman had accused them of crossing into Nigeria to provide medical care to injured Boko Haram fighters. The only evidence was the village headman’s word, and at the time, the three men were embroiled in disputes over the village chieftainship and a property inheritance matter. The state granted no resources for investigation and permitted trainee lawyers who were not licensed to practice law to represent them. The prosecution relied entirely on hearsay. Since none of the accusers testified, it was impossible to cross-examine them, and the defense presented no evidence of its own. Even so, the court convicted the men and sentenced them to death.

Unlike Aftab, however, Moctar and Salissou had family who could afford to hire an experienced lawyer for their appeal. The family convinced nine witnesses to travel to the intimidating, distant military tribunal for the appeal hearing and covered all of their travel expenses. The witnesses established the men’s alibis and explained the accusers’ political motivations to the court. In a rare act, the military tribunal overturned Moctar and Salissou’s convictions, finding that they had been based on rumor. Had their families been poor, they would still be on death row today.

While Aftab, Moctar, and Sailssou’s stories are unsettling, they are far from uncommon. Every country that retains the death penalty runs the risk of executing innocent people. As these men’s stories show, that risk is even higher for vulnerable people—especially the poor. Though no system, however well-funded, can entirely eliminate error, the reversal of Moctar and Salissou’s convictions shows the difference experienced, resourced legal counsel can make. As long as states fail to fund the representation of capital defendants, they undervalue justice, and innocent people pay the price.

-- Madalyn K. Wasilczuk, Clinical Teaching Fellow, Cornell Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide

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Kentucky Court Finds Execution of Offenders Aged 18-20 Unconstitutional

On 1 August 2017, a Kentucky court issued the first judicial ruling in the United States finding that the execution of offenders under the age of twenty-one amounted to cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. The court relied heavily on the opinions of experts regarding adolescent brain development in finding that eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds are “categorically less culpable” than adults:

(1) they lack maturity to control their impulses and fully consider both the risks and rewards of an action, making them unlikely to be deterred by knowledge of likelihood and severity of punishment; (2) they are susceptible to peer pressure and emotional influence, which exacerbates their existing immaturity when in groups or under stressful conditions; and (3) their character is not yet well formed due to the neuroplasticity of the young brain, meaning that they have a much better chance at rehabilitation than do adults.

Kentucky v. Bredhold, Order Declaring Kentucky’s Death Penalty Statute as Unconstitutional, No. 14-CR-161, slip op. at 11 (Aug. 1, 2017).

One of the experts cited by the court was Laurence Steinberg, an expert in adolescent development whose research was cited by the US Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons (where the Court found the execution of those under the age of 18 was cruel and unusual punishment).  Steinberg testified that “adolescents,” defined as individuals under the age of twenty-one, lack the capacity of adults to control their impulses, understand and assess risk, regulate their behavior and control their emotions.  Similar to child offenders, they also possess an increased capacity for change, making them particularly good candidates for rehabilitative programs.

The Kentucky court’s ruling embraced arguments that have recently been raised by anti-death penalty advocates in the United States, who in turn have relied on scientific studies demonstrating that the brain does not fully develop until the early twenties, and that the prefrontal cortex—which controls executive functions such as planning, impulse control, and reasoning—is the last to develop. In a 2009 amicus curiae brief submitted in the US Supreme Court case of Graham v. Florida, the American Psychological Association observed that while “[s]cience cannot, of course, draw bright lines precisely demarcating the boundaries between childhood, adolescence and adulthood,” the “qualities that distinguish juveniles from adults do not disappear when an individual turns 18.”

The Kentucky court acknowledged that the “study of brain development conducted in the past ten (10) years has shown that these key brain systems and structures actually continue to mature well into the mid-twenties (20s).” Indeed, several studies have concluded that the brain continues to develop—especially in young men—until the age of about twenty-five. In light of this, shouldn’t courts bar the execution of young offenders up to the age of twenty-five?

Critics of this proposal might argue that age can be taken into account as a mitigating factor at sentencing.  But this presupposes that judges and juries are capable of fairly weighing the scientific evidence demonstrating that young adults, like juveniles, lack the cognitive capacity of older adults. The US Supreme Court considered and rejected this argument in Roper: “An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offender’s objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death.” 

On an international level, every human rights treaty to set an age cut-off for youthful offenders provides that only those under eighteen are categorically exempt from capital punishment.  During the drafting of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, there was little debate as to why eighteen marked the dividing line between child and adult.  In Roper, the US Supreme Court noted merely that “[t]he age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood.”    

Notwithstanding the multiple definitions of “child” as anyone under the age of eighteen, some nations already recognize that for the purposes of capital sentencing, the line should be drawn differently.  Zimbabwe’s 2013 Constitution prohibits the execution of offenders who were under the age of twenty-one at the time the offense was committed, and Cuba prohibits the execution of those who committed crimes while they were under twenty years old.  And in Malawi, courts have accepted that crimes committed by offenders aged 19-25 “may be a result of impetuous, immaturity, youth or adventure.” Republic v. Keke, Confirmation Case No 404 (HC) (2010) (unreported).

It is likely the Kentucky court’s ruling will be overturned on appeal.  But the opinion represents the first recognition by a judicial body that drawing the line at eighteen makes no sense in light of the new research on brain development and its effects on adolescent behavior.  It is time for the international community to take note of this evidence as well.  At a minimum, a powerful argument could be made that the execution of young adults under the age of 25 would be impermissibly arbitrary in violation of Article 6 of the ICCPR.

-- Sandra Babcock


Iranian Lawmakers Vote to End Death Penalty for Some Drug-Related Crimes

In a significant move that could prevent the execution of 5,000 convicted prisoners in Iran, lawmakers have voted to end the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes.

Current Law

Iran’s anti-narcotics law currently includes 17 different drug-related crimes punishable by death, ranging from possession to manufacturing and trafficking. Iran’s anti-narcotics law was drafted in 1988 and amended in 1997, and again in 2011. The government made these amendments in response to a growing drug problem in Iran. In recent years, there have been discussions regarding a need to reduce the number of executions, and a growing effort to expand rehabilitation facilities to accommodate more individuals. However, this has not resulted in a decrease in the number of arrests for drug-related crimes.

Further, the majority of death sentences issued by the Revolutionary Courts are for drug offences. Established in 1979 and intended to be temporary, the Revolutionary Courts notoriously lack transparency and contribute significantly to the lack of basic due process extended to those facing drug-related charges that carry the penalty of death. Not only are the individuals arrested for drug offences systematically subjected to torture, those tried in Revolutionary Courts are not given adequate access to lawyers.

Background to the Bill

 Last year, we wrote a blog about how, in December 2015, Iranian politicians proposed to limit the death penalty for certain drug-related crimes. Although the bill was never published, it appeared that those offenders caught with weapons while involved in drug trafficking would still be eligible for execution. It was not clear then whether this parliamentary reform would progress after the United Nations announced renewed funding for counter-narcotics efforts in Iran in the amount of $20 million in late December 2015, doubling its previous contributions.

Subsequently in October 2016, 150 MPs—over 50% of the Parliament—signed the bill limiting the application of the death penalty for drug-related certain crimes. According to most recent reports, Parliament voted on the reform bill on August 13, 2017. Originally scheduled for June 7, 2017, the vote was postponed until after the summer recess due to pushback from security bodies overseeing Iran’s anti-narcotics program. Prior to the vote, the Legal and Judicial Affairs Committee had requested that executions for drug offenders be halted until the law was passed, but executions for drug crimes continued despite pressure from several prominent human rights organizations. The Guardian Council—comprised of six theologians appointed by the Supreme Leader and six jurists nominated by the judiciary and approved by Parliament—must now approve this bill before it becomes law.

As it stands, the bill would change the punishment for some drug offenses to a prison term of up to 30 years, but maintain the death penalty for some non-violent drug crimes, including a range of drug trafficking crimes based on the type of drug and quantities seized. The bill proposes an increase in the quantities of drugs required to impose the death penalty: currently, possession of 30 grams of synthetic drugs, or trafficking, possession or trade of more than 5 kg of opium, or 30 grams of heroin carries a mandatory death sentence. The proposed bill increases the quantities to 50 kg of opium and 2 kg of synthetic drugs. The death penalty would also still apply to individuals convicted of a number of drug-related crimes including: those armed in the commission of a drug-related crime; leaders of trafficking cartels; using a child to traffic drugs; and previous drug-related crime offenders. The approved amendments also specify that possession, purchase, or concealing more than 3 kg of synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines is punishable by death.

Executions in Iran

Although executions are down from nearly 1,000 in 2015, Iran remains one of the most prolific executioner states worldwide.

Iran Human Rights reported that drug offences accounted for 48% of all of Iran’s executions in 2013, 49% in 2014, 66% in 2015, and 56% in 2016. This organization also reported that of the 239 executions carried out in the first half of 2017, 129 of those were for drug-related crimes. Amnesty International and the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation have recorded 319 executions in 2017 as of July 26, with 183 of those for drug-related offences.

Iran is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, a foundational human rights treaty, under which capital punishment’s applicability is limited to a category of “most serious crimes.” Despite this, Iran continues to carry out executions for non-violent drug-related offences. Given that it is widely accepted that only intentional homicides constitute “most serious crimes,” these executions for drug-related offences violate international law.

As the world’s second-most prolific executioner worldwide and with drug convictions underlying the majority of Iran’s executions, abolishing the death penalty for a portion of drug-related crimes would be significant news. If the amendment becomes law, it will reportedly affect up to 5,000 prisoners on death row for drug-related crimes in Iran. However, until executions for all drug-related crimes cease (as required by international law) and fundamental issues of due process are addressed, execution numbers are bound to remain high.

-- Safa Ansari-Bayegan


Benin Abolished Death Penalty in 2016, But 14 Prisoners Remain on Death Row

In January 2016, the Constitutional Court of Benin effectively abolished the death penalty in a ruling that stated that “no one can now be sentenced to capital punishment.”  Prior to this ruling, in 2013, the National Assembly repealed death penalty provisions in the Criminal Procedure Code.  Currently, a bill is pending in the National Assembly that seeks to completely remove death penalty provisions in the Criminal Code. 

The Constitutional Court’s ruling is the latest development in a series of events leading to abolition of the death penalty in this West African country.  The last known execution in Benin was carried out in 1987 and the last death sentence was handed down in 2010.  In 2012, the country signed on to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, committing to immediately cease applying capital punishment and to fully abolish the death penalty in law in the near future.

Despite these reforms, 14 prisoners remain under sentence of death. And while Benin has committed not to execute these prisoners, their sentences have not been commuted.  The prisoners include 10 Beninese, two Nigerians, one Togolese and one Ivorian. In 2016, Amnesty International visited the prison where these prisoners are still being held and described substandard conditions.  The prisoners researchers talked to have lived for decades under the constant fear of death. At least three prisoners have died from serious illnesses such as malaria and tuberculosis while on death row. 

According to Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “[n]o one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment.”  In the last 20 years, jurisprudence has developed in support of the idea that continued incarceration on death row (also known as "death row phenomenon") constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment.  In Pratt v. Morgan, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council determined that a five--year wait between conviction and execution presumptively cruel and inhuman punishment.  Courts in Canada and Uganda have reached similar conclusions.  In the United States, the issue has not yet reached the Supreme Court; however, two justices have voiced their support for recognizing the phenomenon as a violation of fundamental rights. 

Amnesty has urged authorities in Benin to commute the death sentences of the 14 prisoners remaining on death row in order to comply with the country’s international obligations. Noting that 104 countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty, Amnesty has urged Benin, as a member of this global majority, to completely eliminate any remnants of the old death penalty system and to commute the sentences of these men who have suffered for decades under the old regime. 

-- Jenna Kyle


Malawian Prisoner Released After Twelve Years on Death Row

Malawian prisoner Ishmail Gome has been released from death row, nearly 12 years after he was convicted and sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.

Cornell law students working with my International Human Rights Clinic were instrumental in securing his release. Maame Esi Austin (JD ’17) worked with the Malawi Human Rights Commission and Malawian lawyer Chimwemwe Chithope-Mwale to draft the legal arguments seeking his immediate release. Charlotte Hopkinson (JD ’18) and Thalia Gerzso (LLM ’17) drafted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of myself, Professor William Schabas, and Professor Christof Heyns that outlined the risk factors for wrongful convictions present in Mr. Gome’s case. The clinic team also obtained a declaration from neuropsychiatrist Dr. George Woods, who attested to the psychological torment Mr. Gome had endured on death row.

Ishmail Gome had been accused of killing a rival for the chieftainship of his village. All of the physical evidence, however, pointed to his co-defendant, Pitilizani Chabuka. Mr. Chabuka testified against Mr. Gome at trial in exchange for the prosecution’s agreement to reduce the charges against him. Ten years later, he came forward and admitted that he had fabricated the charges against Mr. Gome.

Mr Gome is the only son and the last of nine children in his family. He was unable to attend school because of his family’s poverty. Nevertheless, he grew to become the breadwinner of his family, working long hours to provide for his parents and eight older sisters by farming and selling maize, soya beans, tobacco and nuts. Mr Gome eventually got married and had five children of his own.

On the morning of January 12, 2004, Foliasi Chibwazi was found dead. The police discovered a single set of footprints, beginning at the scene of the crime and leading to the home of Pitilizani Chabuka, Mr Gome’s nephew. After Mr Chabuka was arrested, he implicated his uncle Ishmail Gome as an accomplice in the murder.

Mr Gome was later brought to the police station, where he was detained for 10 days. He was beaten, deprived of food, and coerced into confessing guilt.

There was no evidence linking Mr Gome to the murder other than the testimony of Mr Chabuka and his coerced confession. All the physical evidence pointed to Mr Chabuka as the sole perpetrator of the crime.

On 13 October 2015, Pitilizani Chabuka finally admitted that he alone carried out the crime at the request of his grandfather, who did not wish to see the deceased take over the chieftaincy. He was adamant that Ishmail Gome “did not play any role in the offence and is innocent.” He came forward after realizing that his false testimony contravened his religious beliefs, and stated that he felt terrible about falsely implicating Mr Gome in the offence, “because God knows I have sinned.”

For the last 10 years, my clinic has been assisting Malawian prisoners facing the death penalty. In 2007, the Malawi High Court struck down the mandatory death penalty under the Malawian Constitution. Since then, the clinic has assisted in the representation of approximately 170 prisoners, all of whom were once sentenced to death under the unconstitutional mandatory sentencing regime.

The High Courts have now held 152 resentencing hearings at which Malawian defense attorneys presented mitigating evidence obtained by Malawian paralegals trained by the clinic. Volunteers funded by the NGO Reprieve and Cornell’s Center on the Death Penalty Worldwide have played a crucial role in this project by interviewing prisoners and their families, drafting legal documents, and serving as a liaison with local stakeholders.

As a result of this work, 121 former death row prisoners have been released, and another 28 have received a determinate sentence. None have been resentenced to death, and only one has received a life sentence. The results are a testament to the power of mitigating evidence, and to the joint efforts of Malawian lawyers, judges and NGOs working in tandem with their international partners.

-- Sandra Babcock