Capital Punishment Around the World

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Capital punishment is controversial not only in the United States but also in many other countries. The ethical arguments that fuel the debate in the United States also characterize the discussions around the world. The United Nations' (UN) position on capital punishment is a compromise among those countries that want it completely abolished, those that want it limited to serious offenses, and those that want it left up to each country to decide. In 1946, just after the end of World War II (19391945), the UN General Assembly gathered to draft a bill of human rights for all UN member nations to follow. From the beginning, the death penalty was a topic of contention, and in 1948, when the assembly released the International Bill of Human Rights, there was no mention of the death penalty. After nine years of debate, the General Assembly included a statement on the death penalty in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which was later added to the International Bill of Human Rights. On December 16, 1966, the General Assembly adopted the covenant in Resolution 2200 ( Article 6 of the covenant states:

  1. Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.
  2. In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes in accordance with the law in force at the time of the commission of the crime and not contrary to the provisions of the present Covenant and to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide [systematic killing of a racial, political, or cultural group]. This penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.
  3. When deprivation of life constitutes the crime of genocide, it is understood that nothing in this article shall authorize any State Party to the present Covenant to derogate [turn away] in any way from any obligation assumed under the provisions of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
  4. Anyone sentenced to death shall have the right to seek pardon or commutation of the sentence [replacement of the death sentence with a lesser sentence]. Amnesty, pardon or commutation of the sentence of death may be granted in all cases.
  5. Sentence of death shall not be imposed for crimes committed by persons below eighteen years of age and shall not be carried out on pregnant women.
  6. Nothing in this article shall be invoked to delay or to prevent the abolition of capital punishment by any State Party to the present Covenant.

The General Assembly has dealt with the death penalty in several other documents and meetings. Among them is Resolution 2393 (November 26, 1968,, which specifies the following legal safeguards that should be offered to condemned prisoners by countries with capital punishment:

  1. A person condemned to death shall not be deprived of the right to appeal to a higher judicial authority or, as the case may be, to petition for pardon or reprieve;
  2. A death sentence shall not be carried out until the procedures of appeal or, as the case may be, of petition for pardon or reprieve have been terminated;
  3. Special attention shall be given in the case of indigent [poor] persons by the provision of adequate legal assistance at all stages of the proceedings.

Since then the General Assembly has come out more strongly for eliminating capital punishment. Resolution 2857 (December 20, 1971, observes that ''in order fully to guarantee the right to life, provided for in article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights [a section of the International Bill of Human Rights], the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number of offences for which capital punishment may be imposed, with a view to the desirability of abolishing this punishment in all countries.''

The UN Economic and Social Council Resolution 1574 of May 20, 1971, made a similar declaration. In 1984 the Economic and Social Council then adopted the Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty, including those of people younger than age eighteen at the time the crime was committed. Over the succeeding years General Assembly and Economic and Social Council resolutions have continued to call for the abolition of the death penalty.

On December 15, 1989, the General Assembly, under Resolution 44/128, adopted the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aimed at abolishing the death penalty. This international treaty allows countries to retain the death penalty in wartime as long as they reserve the right to do so at the time they become party to the treaty. As of October 19, 2007, thirty-five countries had signed the treaty (, which indicated their intention to become parties to it at a later date. Signatories are not legally bound by the treaty but are obliged to avoid acts that would go against the treaty. Sixty-four countries had become parties to the protocol by ratification or accession, which means that they are legally bound by the terms of the treaty. Accession is similar to ratification, except that it occurs after the treaty has entered into force. In 1992 the United States ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but as of October 19, 2007, it had not signed the Second Optional Protocol to this treaty.

Push for a Moratorium

Since April 1997 the UN Human Rights Council (formerly the UN Commission on Human Rights) has adopted resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions and an eventual abolition of the death penalty. The United States has consistently voted against these resolutions. In a 2004 statement the U.S. delegation to the UN Commission on Human Rights ( noted ''International law does not prohibit the death penalty when due process safeguards are respected and when capital punishment is applied only to the most serious crimes.''

During its 2002 session the Human Rights Council, in Resolution 2002/77 (, asked countries with the death penalty ''to ensure that . . . the death penalty is not imposed for non-violent acts such as financial crimes, non-violent religious practice or expression of conscience and sexual relations between consenting adults.'' The part of the resolution referring to sexual relations between consenting adults resulted from the potential execution of a Nigerian woman, who became pregnant while divorced. She was convicted of adultery and, in March 2002, was sentenced to die by stoning. The man who fathered the child claimed innocence, brought in three men to corroborate his claim as required by law, and was released. The woman was acquitted on September 25, 2003.

The Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 2003/67 on April 24, 2003. For the first time, the commission asked countries that retained capital punishment not to extend the application of the death penalty to offenses to which it does not currently apply. It also admonished those countries to inform the public of any scheduled execution and to abstain from holding public executions and inhuman forms of executions, such as stoning. The UN also called on death penalty countries not to impose the death sentence on mothers with dependent children.

On December 18, 2000, the UN secretary general Kofi Annan (1938; announced that he received a petition signed by more than 3 million people from 130 countries appealing for an end to executions. Subsequently, the secretary general called for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, noting that the taking of life as punishment for crime is ''too absolute [and] too irreversible.''

In November 2007 a draft resolution was presented to a General Assembly panel calling for a moratorium on the death penalty by member states. The resolution was spearheaded by the Ministers of the European Union and cosponsored by seventy-two countries. In a vote of ninety-nine to fifty-two (with thirty-three abstentions) the resolution was passed. The United States was among the nations that voted against the resolution. The full 192-member General Assembly was expected to approve the decision within the next few months.


Amnesty International (AI), a human rights organization, maintains information on capital punishment throughout the world. The organization refers to countries that retain and use the death penalty as retentionist countries; those that no longer use the death penalty are called abolitionist countries.

As of August 8, 2007, sixty-seven countries and territories retained and used the death penalty as a possible

Countries and territories which retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes, August 8, 2007
Antigua and BarbudaLaos
CameroonPalestinian Authority
ChinaSaint Christopher & Nevis
ComorosSaint Lucia
Congo (Democratic Republic)Saint Vincent & Grenadines
CubaSaudi Arabia
DominicaSierra Leone
Equatorial GuineaSomalia
IndonesiaTrinidad and Tobago
IraqUnited Arab Emirates
JamaicaUnited States of America
Korea (North)Zimbabwe
Korea (South)

punishment for ordinary crimes. (See Table 10.1.) Ordinary crimes are crimes committed during peacetime. Ordinary crimes that could lead to the death penalty include murder, rape, and, in some countries, robbery or embezzlement of large sums of money. Exceptional crimes are military crimes committed during exceptional times, mainly wartime. Examples are treason, spying, or desertion (leaving the armed services without permission).

The AI notes in ''Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty'' (October 2, 2007, that even though many of the retentionist countries had not executed anybody in many years, 25 countries performed at least 1,591 executions in 2006. In addition, at least 3,861 people were sentenced to death in 55 countries. The AI reports that 91% of the known executions occurred in only six countries: China (1,010), Iran (177), Pakistan (82), Iraq (65), Sudan (65), and the United States (53). China alone accounted for nearly two-thirds (63%) of all known executions, but the AI estimates that the actual number is larger, between seventy-five hundred to eight thousand. (Note: since 2004 the AI has relied on Internet-based reports instead of trial documents to estimate the number of executions in China. Using the Internet has resulted in a much higher count than that provided by official sources.)

United States

The United States remains the only Western country that practices capital punishment. (As of 2007, the federal government, the U.S. military, and thirty-eight states approved the death penalty.) In September 1997 the UN monitor Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a lawyer from Senegal, investigated the use of the death penalty in the United States. This was the first time the UN had sent an investigator to report on the U.S. capital punishment system. In his report to the UN Commission on Human Rights, Mission to the United States of America (January 22, 1998,, Ndiaye accuses the United States of unfair, arbitrary, and racist use of capital punishment. He claims that ''allegations of racial discrimination in the imposition of death sentences are particularly serious in southern states, such as Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and Texas, known as the 'death penalty belt.'''


Under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations (VCCR) local U.S. law enforcement officials are required to notify all detained foreigners ''without delay'' of their right to consult with the consulate of their home country. The United States ratified (formally approved and sanctioned) this international agreement and an Optional Protocol to the VCCR in 1969. The Optional Protocol provided that the International Court of Justice (ICJ; the UN's highest court) would have the authority to decide when VCCR rights have been violated. Capital punishment opponents claim that the United States has a poor record of informing foreign nationals under arrest of their rights under the VCCR.

Mark Warren of Human Rights Research (Ontario, Canada) provides information and expertise on human rights issues to government, nongovernmental organizations, consulates, and lawyers. According to Warren, as of October 4, 2006, the United States had executed twenty-two foreign nationals, and only one condemned prisoner (Angel Maturino Resendis) was informed of his VCCR right at the time of arrest. (See Table 10.2.) The Death Penalty Information Center ( reports that as of March 28, 2007, 124 foreign nationals were on death row in the United States. The largest number (fifty-four) were Mexican. The vast majority of foreign nationals under the sentence of death were in California (47), Texas (28), and Florida (21).


Angel Francisco Breard, a Paraguayan national, was arrested on charges of capital murder and attempted rape in 1992. In 1993 Breard was sentenced to death for

Confirmed foreign nationals executed, 1976October 4, 2006
NameVienna Convention on Consular
Relations (VCCR) claim raised
Leslie LowenfieldGuyanaLouisiana13-Apr-88
Carlos Santana#Dominican RepublicTexas23-Mar-93
Ramon Montoya#MexicoTexas25-Mar-93
Pedro MedinaCubaFlorida25-Mar-97
Irineo Tristan Montoya#MexicoTexas18-Jun-97
Mario Murphy#(Fourth Circuit)MexicoVirginia18-Sep-97
Angel Breard#(US Supreme Court)ParaguayVirginia14-Apr-98
Jose Villafuerte#HondurasArizona22-Apr-98
Tuan NguyenViet NamOklahoma10-Dec-98
Jaturun Siripongs#ThailandCalifornia9-Feb-99
Karl LaGrand#(Ninth Circuit)GermanyArizona24-Feb-99
Walter LaGrand#(Ninth Circuit)GermanyArizona3-Mar-99
Alvaro Calamvro#PhilippinesNevada5-Apr-99
Joseph Stanley Faulder#(Fifth Circuit)CanadaTexas17-Jun-99
Miguel Angel Flores#(Fifth Circuit)MexicoTexas9-Nov-00
Sebastian BridgesSouth AfricaNevada21-Apr-01
Sahib al-Mosawi#IraqOklahoma6-Dec-01
Javier Suarez Medina#MexicoTexas14-Aug-02
Rigoberto Sanchez VelascoCubaFlorida2-Oct-02
Mir Aimal Kasi#PakistanVirginia14-Nov-02
Hung Thanh Le#VietnamOklahoma23-Mar-04
Angel Maturino ResendizMexicoTexas27-Jun-06

Notes: With the exception of Angel Maturino Resendiz, all indications are that none of these executed individuals were informed by U.S. authorities upon arrest of their right to have their consulate notified of their detention, as required under Article 36 of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. In several instances, prisoners on this list did not learn of their right to request consular assistance for more than a decade, by which time the treaty violation was considered by the appellate courts to be a procedurally defaulted claim. Cases indicated with (#) are those in which the consular notification issue was raised on appeal or in clemency proceedings (major appellate opinions on consular rights are in brackets).

these crimes. Following the denial of his appeals before the Virginia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court, Breard invoked the provision of the VCCR. The U.S. District Court, in Breard v. Netherland (949 F. Supp. 1255, 1266 [ED Va. 1996]), rejected Breard's claim because he had ''procedurally defaulted'' the claim when he failed to raise it in state court during his state appeals. Without doing so, he could not raise the issue in his federal appeals. In addition, the district court concluded that Breard could not show cause and prejudice for this default.

Also in 1996 the Republic of Paraguay brought suit against Virginia officials for violation of the Vienna Convention because they failed to notify the Paraguayan consulate of Breard's arrest. The district court dismissed the suit, a decision that the appellate court affirmed. On April 3, 1998, the Republic of Paraguay brought the case before the ICJ, which ruled, on April 9, 1998, that the United States should stay (postpone) Breard's execution pending the ICJ's final decision. Paraguay had also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court.

On April 14, 1998, the day of execution, the U.S. Supreme Court, voting 63, refused to intervene in the case despite requests for a stay of execution from the U.S. secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright (1937). In Breard v. Greene (523 U.S. 371, 1998), the Court stated:

It is the rule in this country that assertions of error in criminal proceedings must first be raised in state court in ordertoformthebasisforreliefinhabeas....Claimsnotso raised are considered defaulted. By not asserting his Vienna Convention claim in state court, Breard failed to exercise his rights under the Vienna Convention in conformity with the laws of the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia. Having failed to do so, he cannot raise a claim of violation of those rights now on federal habeas review. . . .

As for Paraguay's suits (both the original action and the case coming to us on petition for certiorari [a petition to the Supreme Court to review the issues brought up in the direct appeal]), neither the text nor the history of the Vienna Convention clearly provides a foreign nation a private right of action in United States courts to set aside a criminal conviction and sentence for violation of consular notification provisions. . . . Though Paraguay claims that its suit is within an exemption dealing with continuing consequences of past violations of federal rights, we do not agree. The failure to notify the Paraguayan Consul occurred long ago and has no continuing effect.

Breard was executed later that same day. In November 1998 the United States formally apologized to Paraguay for failing to inform Breard of his right to seek consular assistance. Paraguay withdrew its lawsuit following the apology.


In 1982 the German brothers Karl LaGrand and Walter LaGrand killed a bank employee during a robbery attempt in Tucson, Arizona. They were sentenced to death in 1984. In February 1999 Karl LaGrand was executed. On March 2, 1999, the day before Walter LaGrand's execution, Germany sued the United States at the ICJ. According to Germany, the United States violated Article 36 of the Vienna Convention by failing to inform the defendant after being arrested of his right to contact the German consulate for help. Germany also claimed that Arizona prosecutors violated Article 36 because they knowingly failed to inform Germany of the arrest and conviction until ten years after the murder. By that time it was too late, under ''procedural default,'' for the defendant to raise the issue of the treaty violation. The U.S. rule of procedural default requires that claims challenging conviction and/or sentence have to be presented at the state appeals stage. Walter LaGrand had not argued for his Article 36 rights in previous court proceedings and, therefore, could not raise a violation of that right in later proceedings.

The ICJ ordered the United States to stay Walter LaGrand's execution, but Arizona let the execution take place. Despite the execution, Germany proceeded with the lawsuit. During a November 2000 hearing before the ICJ, the United States argued that Article 36 does not confer personal rights to individual nationals. In other words, the United States conceded that even though it violated its treaty obligations to Germany, it did not violate its obligations to the brothers. The United States added that even though German authorities knew of the LaGrand case in 1992, they waited until 1999 to intervene for the brothers.

On June 27, 2001, the ICJ, in Germany v. United States of America, ruled 141 that the United States had violated its obligations to Germany and to the LaGrand brothers under the VCCR. The ICJ also ruled that domestic law must not prevent the review of the conviction and sentencing when a defendant's right to consular notification has been violated. In addition, the United States must provide review and remedies should a similar case arise.


In 2003 the ICJ was asked to settle a case involving the United States and consular notification. On January 9, 2003, in Avena and Other Mexican Nationals [Mexico v. United States of America], Mexico sued the United States for allegedly violating the VCCR with respect to fifty-four Mexican nationals on U.S. death row. Mexico also asked the court, pending final judgment of the case, to issue provisional measures ordering the United States to abstain from executing any Mexican national or schedule any such execution. The United States argued that Mexico's request for provisional measures should be rejected by the court because they were equivalent to ''a sweeping prohibition on capital punishment for Mexican nationals in the United States, regardless of United States law.''

On February 5, 2003, the ICJ unanimously issued an order directing the United States to take all necessary measures to ensure that three Mexican nationals, who faced possible execution in the coming months or even weeks, not be executed pending its final decision. Furthermore, the court noted that the other fifty-one death row inmates were not included in the provisional measures order because they were not in the same situation as the other three men.

Even though Judge Shigeru Oda (1924) voted with the other fourteen court members regarding the order for provisional measures, he expressed his doubts about the court's definition of ''disputes arising out of the interpretation or application'' of the Vienna Convention. He had expressed the same doubts in the Breard and LaGrand cases. Judge Oda stated that because the United States had admitted its failure to abide by the Vienna Convention, no dispute concerning consular notification existed. He believed the current lawsuit ''is in essence an attempt by Mexico to save the lives of its nationals sentenced to death by domestic courts in the United States.'' Judge Oda observed that the ICJ cannot act as a court of criminal appeal, adding that ''if the rights of the accused as they relate to humanitarian issues are to be respected then, in parallel, the matter of the rights of victims of violent crime (a point which has often been overlooked) should be taken into consideration.''

The ICJ handed down its decision on March 31, 2004. The court found that the United States had violated sections of the Vienna Convention by not informing the fifty-four Mexicans on death row of their right to notify their government about their detention. The court did not annul the convictions and sentences as Mexico had requested, but it did rule that the United States must review and reconsider the Mexican nationals' convictions and sentences.


Jose Medellin was one of the fifty-four Mexicans on death row. Texas jurors sentenced him to death for participating in the rape and murder of two teenage girls in 1993. The Mexican consular did not learn of or have the opportunity to help Medellin with his legal defense until 1997, after Medellin had exhausted most of his appeals. When the ICJ decision regarding Mexican nationals was handed down, Medellin appealed once again to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, claiming that he did not receive adequate counsel and that he was not allowed to contact the Mexican consulate after his indictment. The federal appellate court ruled against Medellin. The court cited Breard v. Greene, which stated that the issues addressed by the Vienna Convention had to be considered in the state courts before they could be addressed in federal court. Because Medellin had already gone through his appeals on the state level, he had no recourse. Medellin appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court and on December 10, 2004, the Court agreed to hear his case and to reassess its position on the Vienna Convention and ICJ rulings.

Just before the oral arguments in the Medellin case, President George W. Bush (1946) signed an executive order on February 28, 2005, demanding that the appropriate U.S. state courts review the sentences and convictions of the fifty-four Mexicans on death row without applying the procedural default rule discussed in Breard v. Greene. By issuing this order, the president in essence forced the courts to comply to the ICJ ruling regarding the Mexicans. In light of the executive order, the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed Medellin's case, and it was sent back to the state courts for review.

According to Linda Greenhouse, in ''Supreme Court to Hear Appeal of Mexican Death Row Inmate'' (New York Times, May 1, 2007), the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals subsequently accused Bush of ''intrusive'' meddling in the state's court system and refused to comply with the president's order. In response, the Bush administration urged the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Texas court's decision. On October 10, 2007, the case was heard by the high court. As of November 2007, a decision had not been published.


On March 9, 2005, President Bush pulled the United States out of the Optional Protocol to the VCCR, which had been in place for thirty years. Charles Lane indicates in ''U.S. Quits Pact Used in Capital Cases'' (Washington Post, March 10, 2005) that the administration no longer wanted the U.S. court system to be influenced by the ICJ with regard to executing foreign nationals.


An increasing number of countries refuse to extradite (surrender for trial) criminals to the United States who might face the death penalty. In March 2000 French authorities arrested the fugitive James Charles Kopp, who was accused of murdering the abortion provider Barnett Slepian. It took months of negotiations before the French government agreed to send Kopp back to the United States for trial. The U.S. Department of Justice had to guarantee in writing that the United States would not charge Kopp with capital murder. In 2001 the supreme courts of Canada and South Africa ruled that both nations would not extradite any criminal to the United States or any country that advocates capital punishment. The governments of Mexico and many west European countries have made similar announcements.

In June 2007 the government of Cyprus agreed to extradite Yazeed Essa, a Palestinian, to the United States to stand trial in Ohio for murdering his wife in 2005. The agreement was reached after U.S. authorities promised that Essa would not face the death penalty.

Capital punishment has proven to be a sticking point in extraditions involving suspects in the U.S. wars on terror and on drugs. In 2005 the German government refused to extradite Mohammed Ali Hamadi to the United States out of fear that Hamadi would face the death penalty for his role in killing a U.S. Navy diver during a 1985 airplane hijacking. Hamadi served nineteen years of a life sentence in Germany for the hijacking before being paroled and deported to his native Lebanon. The Lebanese government has refused to turn him over to U.S. authorities. As of November 2007, Hamadi was on the Federal Bureau of Investigation's ''Most Wanted Terrorists'' list, and a $5 million reward was offered for information leading to his capture. In February 2007 U.S. authorities filed an extradition request for the accused drug-cartel leader Benjamin Arellano-Félix, who has been in custody in Mexico since 2002. His brother Francisco Javier Arellano-Félix was captured by the U.S. Coast Guard while in international waters in 2006. Both men are accused of operating a violent drug smuggling ring and committing multiple capital crimes subject to the death penalty under U.S. law. In November 2007 Francisco Javier Arellano-Félix received a life sentence without parole after a plea bargain deal was reached that eliminated the death penalty as an option in exchange for his guilty plea. It is considered unlikely that Mexico will extradite Benjamin Arellano-Félix without similar assurances that he will not face capital punishment.


Human rights groups find that China executes more people each year than all the other death penalty nations combined. In October 1999 the Chinese government passed a law allowing the imposition of the death sentence on leaders of the Falun Gong religious movement charged with murder and endangering national security. The government claimed the movement has caused the death of more than one thousand followers by dissuading them from seeking medical help.

According to the AI, in Report 2002 (2002,, a massive increase in executions occurred in 2001 as a result of a nationwide anticrime campaign called Strike Hard. Chinese officials had allegedly been inconsistent in determining which crimes warranted the death penalty. Law enforcement, under pressure to achieve results, sped up the criminal process by reportedly subjecting defendants to torture to extract confessions. In Report 2005 (2005,, the AI estimates that approximately thirty-four hundred people had been executed and six thousand had been sentenced to death in 2004. However, the organization reports that a Chinese government official had announced that the country executes about ten thousand people per year.

People convicted of nonviolent offenses, such as tax fraud, bribery, embezzlement, and counterfeiting, have been put to death in China. Joseph Kahn reports in ''China Quick to Execute Drug Official'' (New York Times, July 11, 2007) that in July 2007 Zheng Xiaoyu, the nation's former head of food and drug safety, was executed for taking bribes to approve medicines that had not been properly tested. He was sentenced in May 2007 and lost a subsequent appeal to China's Supreme Court. Zheng's execution was believed by many observers to be a political move to bolster international confidence in the quality of Chinese food and drugs after well-publicized problems surfaced with some products, including pet foods and toothpaste sold in the United States.

In ''Chinese Try Mobile Death Vans'' (The Age,March 13, 2003), Hamish McDonald notes that in 2003 eighteen mobile execution buses had been outfitted for use in Yunnan province in the southwest region of China. The buses were equipped with a bed and automatic syringe to facilitate lethal injections. Ivy Zhang, in ''Death, Yunnan Style'' (Beijing Today, March 3, 2007), states that four government officials participate in the executions: the executor, a court representative, a doctor, and an official from the procuratorate (legal supervisory organ of the state). Besides the vans being less costly for the government, McDonald indicates that one official told Chinese Life Weekly that the condemned prisoners prefer lethal injection to the former method, which was being shot in the head. The official said, ''When they know they can't be pardoned, they accept this method calmly, and have less fear.''


In Report 2006 (2006,, the AI notes that one person was executed in Japan in 2005. According to the article ''3 Executed, Bringing Total under Nagase's Watch to 10'' (Asahi Shimbun, August 24, 2007), four convicts were hanged in December 2006, three in April 2007, and three in August 2007. The Japanese government typically reports only the number and locations of executions after they take place. It does not provide to the media the names of the executed or other information about them.

Death row inmates are forbidden from meeting with journalists and researchers collecting data on the death penalty. Any information gathered by these people usually results from significant investigations of their own. Families have limited access to the inmates, many of whom spend their days in solitary confinement.

Japan is also known for its drawn-out process of appeals. A case that drew worldwide attention involved a prisoner who, in 1997, after having been on death row for thirty years, was executed in secrecy. The inmate had committed multiple murders at age nineteen (a minor under Japanese law) but was convicted as an adult. The law requires the Ministry of Justice to carry out an execution within six months after appeals are finalized. However, according to human rights organizations, the ministry arbitrarily sets the execution date.

In '''Will This Day Be My Last?' The Death Penalty in Japan'' (2007,, the AI indicates that the Japanese government does not announce impending executions or notify families and lawyers of death row inmates about scheduled executions. Even the inmate who is being put to death learns of his or her fate only about two hours before the execution. The government has been known to carry out executions when the Diet (parliament) is not in session or during holidays to avoid parliamentary debate, as reported by AI.

The AI states that many inmates have been on death row for more than thirty years, never knowing which day might be their last. According to the article ''Sadamichi Hirasawa Is Dead; Was on Death Row 32 Years'' (New York Times, May 11, 1987), the ninety-five-year-old Sadamichi Hirasawa died in 1987 while awaiting execution. He had been on death row for thirty-two years. The AI notes in '''Will This Day Be My Last?''' that in September 2003 the eighty-six-year-old Tomiyama Tsuneki died after having been on death row for thirty-nine years. The sixty-nine-yearold Hakamada Iwao had been on death row for thirty-seven years.

The South Asia Human Rights Documentation Center, in ''Japan Hanging on to Death Penalty'' (Human Rights Features, April 12, 2003), explains that Japanese law does not provide judges with the criteria needed to impose the death penalty. For example, homicide may be punishable by execution, life imprisonment, or a prison term of not less than three years.

Forum 90 is an abolitionist group that monitors capital punishment in Japan. In The Hidden Death Penalty in Japan (2001), which is edited by Sachiho Takahashi and Thomas Mariadason, Forum 90 reports that besides the other secret elements of the death penalty in Japan, the general public is not informed of the identities of those executed. Because Japan has no jury system, ordinary citizens find out about an execution only after the Ministry of Justice announces that it has occurred.

According to Charles Lane, in ''Why Japan Still Has the Death Penalty'' (Washington Post, January 16, 2005), the Japanese government claims that a large percentage of the public, as shown by a 1999 opinion poll, approves of the death penalty. However, experts point out that this percentage resulted from a problematic polling question. The people were asked whether they agreed that the death penalty system should be abolished in any case or whether the death penalty is necessary through unavoidable circumstances. A majority (79.3%) chose the second response. Lane notes that street crime had been on the rise in Japan and that this may have influenced support for the death penalty.

Initiatives toward abolishing the death penalty in Japan have not prevailed. In November 2002 the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called unsuccessfully for

Countries that are abolitionist in practice, August 8, 2007
(last execution)
Brunei Darussalam1957K
Burkina Faso1988
Central African Republic1981
Congo (Republic)1982
Papua New Guinea1950
Russian Federation1999
Sri Lanka1976

Notes: Countries that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes such as murder but can be considered abolitionist in practice in that they have not executed anyone during the past 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions. The list also includes countries which have made an international commitment not to use the death penalty.

K=Date of last known execution.

Ind.=No executions since independence.

a moratorium on the death penalty and a public debate on the issues of the death penalty system. In July 2003 the Japan Parliamentary League against the Death Penalty planned to introduce a bill to suspend executions while a commission was formed to discuss capital punishment. The opposition blocked this effort.


As of August 8, 2007, the AI considered twenty-nine countries as abolitionist in practice. (See Table 10.3.) These countries have death penalty laws for such crimes as murder but have not carried out an execution for the past ten years or more. Some of these nations have not executed anyone for the past fifty years or more. Others have made an international commitment not to impose the death sentence.


In 1863 Venezuela became the first nation to outlaw the death penalty. Since that time many countries have abolished capital punishment. Several countries, however, including Argentina, Brazil, and Spain, restored it after previously rejecting it. Argentina revoked the death penalty in 1921 and in 1972 and then reinstated it in 1976 after a military takeover. Then, in 1984 it abolished capital punishment again for ordinary crimes. Brazil abolished the death penalty in 1882, restored it in 1969, and revoked it again in 1979 for ordinary crimes.

Similarly, Spain repealed the death penalty in 1932, brought it back for certain crimes in 1934, totally restored it in 1938, and then abolished it again in 1978 for ordinary crimes. In 1985 Spain outlawed the death penalty for all crimes. Such swings between banning and imposing capital punishment often reflect shifts in national government between democracy and dictatorship.

As of August 8, 2007, ninety countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. (See Table 10.4.) Since 1976, when the United States reinstated the death penalty after a nine-year moratorium, many countries have stopped imposing capital punishment. Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Greece, the last three west European democracies to have the death sentence, abolished it for all crimes in 1996, 1998, and 2004, respectively. In reality, Belgium has not executed any prisoner since 1950. The last two executions in the United Kingdom occurred in 1964. In 2002 Yugoslavia (now Serbia and Montenegro) and Cyprus abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Armenia shut down its death penalty system in 2003. The governments of Bhutan, Samoa, Senegal, and Turkey all announced that they abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2004. Mexico and Liberia abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2005. They were followed by the Philippines in 2006andAlbaniaandRwandainearly2007.(SeeTable 10.5 for a list of the countries that have abolished the death penalty since 1976.)

Abolitionist Countries for Ordinary Crimes Only

As of August 8, 2007, eleven countries did not impose the death penalty for ordinary crimes committed during peacetime, although they may impose it for exceptional crimes. (See Table 10.6.) Since 2000 two countriesChile (2001) and Kyrgyzstan (2007)have joined this group.

Capital Punishment Is Seldom Reintroduced

The AI notes in Abolitionist and Retentionist Countries (August 8, 2007, that once a country abolishes capital punishment, it seldom brings it back. Between 1990 and August 8, 2007, just four abolitionist countries reimposed the death penalty: Nepal, the Philippines, Gambia, and Papua New Guinea. Nepal and the Philippines later reversed their positions and abolished the death penalty again. Gambia and Papua New Guinea were deemed by the AI to be abolitionist in practice, as neither had conducted an execution in over a decade.

Countries that are abolitionist for all crimes, August 8, 2007
[Countries whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime]
CountryDate (A)Date (AO)Date
(last execution)
Cape Verde19811835
Costa Rica1877
Cote d'Ivoire2000
Czech Republic1990
Dominican Republic1966
Macedonia (Former Yug. Rep.)1991
Marshall IslandsInd.
Micronesia (Federated States)Ind.
New zealand198919611957
Philippines2006 (1987)2000


The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child,

Countries that are abolitionist for all crimes, August 8, 2007 [CONTINUED]
[Countries whose laws do not provide for the death penalty for any crime]
CountryDate (A)Date (AO)Date
(last execution)
San Marino186518481468K
Sao Tome and Principe1990Ind.
Slovak Republic1990
Solomon Islands1966Ind.
South Africa199719951991
United Kingdom199819731964
Vatican City State1969

Notes: Date (A)=Date of abolition for all crimes.

Date (AO)=Date of abolition for ordinary crimes.

K=Date of last known execution.

Ind.=No executions since independence.

the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, and the American Convention on Human Rights all ban the imposition of the death sentence on people who were less than eighteen years old at the time of their crime. In addition, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child further prohibits the sentence of life without the possibility of parole for those younger than eighteen. Since 2000 most countries either had statutes prohibiting the execution of minors or abided by the provisions of one or another of the aforementioned treaties.

According to the AI, in ''Facts and Figures on the Death Penalty,'' between 1990 and October 2, 2007, ten countriesAfghanistan, China, Congo (Democratic Republic), Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United States, and Yemenexecuted fifty-eight offenders who were under the age of eighteen when they committed their crimes. Of these, nineteen executions occurred in the United States.

However, since 1990 several of the countries on the AI list, including the United States, have increased the age for imposition of the death penalty to eighteen. Pakistan raised the minimum age in 2000, and Yemen

Countries that have abolished the death penalty, 1976August 8, 2007
aIn 1990 the German Democratic Republic became unified with the Federal Republic of Germany, where the death penalty had been abolished in 1949.
bSlovenia and Croatia abolished the death penalty while they were still republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The two republics became independent in 1991.
cIn 1993 the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic divided into two states, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
dIn 1997 Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule as a special administrative region of China. Since then Hong Kong has remained abolitionist.
eIn 1999 the Latvian parliament voted to ratify Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, abolishing the death penalty for peacetime offences.
fIn 2007 Albania ratified Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, abolishing the death penalty in all circumstances. In 2000 it had ratified Protocol No. 6 to the European Convention on Human Rights, abolishing the death penalty for peacetime offences.
gIn 2001 Bosnia-Herzegovina ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, abolishing the death penalty for all crimes.
hMontenegro had already abolished the death penalty in 2002 when it was part of a state union with Serbia. It became an independent member state of the United Nations on 28 June 2006. Its ratification of Protocol No. 13 to the European Convention on Human Rights, abolishing the death penalty in all circumstances, came into effect on 6 June 2006.
iIn 2005 Liberia ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, abolishing the death penalty for all crimes.
1976 :PORTUGAL  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1978 :DENMARK  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1979 :LUXEMBOURG, NICARAGUA  andNORWAY abolished the death penalty for all crimes.BRAZIL, FIJI and PERU abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
1981 :FRANCE  andCAPE VERDE abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1982 :TheNETHERLANDS  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1983 :CYPRUS  andEL SALVADOR abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
1984 :ARGENTINA  abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
1985 :AUSTRALIA  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1987 :HAITI, LIECHTENSTEIN  and theGERMAN DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC a abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1989 :CAMBODIA, NEW ZEALAND, ROMANIA  andSLOVENIA b abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1992 :ANGOLA, PARAGUAY  andSWITZERLAND abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1993 :GUINEA-BISSAU, HONG KONG d andSEYCHELLES abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1994 :ITALY  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1995 :DJIBOUTI, MAURITIUS, MOLDOVA  andSPAIN abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1996 :BELGIUM  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1997 :GEORGIA, NEPAL, POLAND  andSOUTH AFRICA abolished the death penalty for all crimes.BOLIVIA abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
1998 :AZERBAIJAN, BULGARIA, CANADA, ESTONIA, LITHUANIA  and theUNITED KINGDOM abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
1999 :EAST TIMOR, TURKMENISTAN  andUKRAINE abolished the death penalty for all crimes.LATVIA e abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
2000 :COTE D'IVOIRE  andMALTA abolished the death penalty for all crimes.ALBANIA f abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
2001 :BOSNIA-HEZEGOVINA g abolished the death penalty for all crimes.CHILE abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
2002 :CYPRUS  andYUGOSLAVIA (now two statesSERBIA andMONTENEGRO h) abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
2003 :ARMENIA  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
2004 :BHUTAN ,GREECE, SAMOA ,SENEGAL  andTURKEY abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
2005 :LIBERIA i andMEXICO abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
2006 :PHILIPPINES  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.
2007 :ALBANIA f, andRWANDA  abolished the death penalty for all crimes.KYRGYZSTAN abolished the death penalty for ordinary crimes.
Countries that are abolitionist for ordinary crimes only, August 8, 2007
[Countries whose laws provide for the death penalty only for exceptional crimes such as crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances, such as wartime crimes]
CountryDate (AO)Date
(last execution)
Cook Islands
El Salvador19831973K

Notes: Date (AO)= Date of abolition for ordinary crimes.

K=Date of last known execution.

followed suit in 2001. In March 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roper v. Simmons (543 U.S. 633) that executing people who committed their crimes under the age of eighteen constituted a cruel and unusual punishment. With this ruling, all states were required to stop executing minors. (See Chapter 4.)


As noted in Chapter 9, U.S. public opinion polls show that a majority of Americans favor the death penalty. Between October and December 2005 the Gallup Organization polled people in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada about capital punishment and compared the results. As shown in Figure 10.1, the highest support was reported in the United States, where 64% of respondents favored the death penalty. Surprisingly, almost half (49%) of respondents in Great Britain also expressed support for capital punishment. (Great Britain has been an abolitionist country since 1998.) Gallup found that 45% of British poll participants opposed the death penalty. Thus, supporters actually outnumbered opponents in Great Britain in 2005.

The reverse was true in Canada. A slim majority (53%) of Canadians opposed the death penalty, compared to 44% who favored it.

Figure 10.2 compares the results from polls conducted in 2003 and 2005. Support for the death penalty declined slightly in Great Britain from 55% to 49% and in Canada from 48% to 44% between the two polls, but remained steady in the United States at 64% in both years.

The article ''Death Penalty Poll Highlights'' (April 26, 2007, reports on an Associated Press/Ipsos poll conducted in 2007 in Great Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Mexico, South Korea, Spain, and the United States. When asked whether they favored or opposed the death penalty for convicted murderers,

50% of British respondents, 45% of French respondents, 31% of Italian respondents, 28% of Spanish respondents, and 69% of American respondents voiced their support for capital punishment. However, only 34% in Great Britain, 21% in France, 16% in Italy, 12% in Spain, and 52% in the United States preferred the death penalty over prison when given a choice of sentences.

The results were much different in the non-European countries included in the survey. In Mexico 71% of those asked favored the death penalty for convicted murderers, and 46% preferred capital punishment over imprisonment. Nearly three-quarters (72%) of South Koreans expressed support for the death penalty for convicted murderers. When given a choice of sentences, only half as many favored capital punishment over imprisonment.

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Capital Punishment Around the World

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Capital Punishment Around the World