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July 25, 2021

Interesting review of African (and global) trends in capital punishment abolition

The New York Times has this interesting new article on capital punishment around the world under the headline "One by One, African Countries Dismantle Colonial-Era Death Penalty Laws."  Here are excerpts:

Lawmakers in Sierra Leone voted unanimously on Friday to abolish the death penalty, a momentous step that made the West African country the 23rd on the continent to prohibit capital punishment.

The decision was one more step in a long-sought goal of civil society organizations and legal practitioners who see the death penalty as a vestige of Africa’s oppressive colonial history.  “This is a horrible punishment and we need to get rid of it,” said Oluwatosin Popoola, a legal adviser at the rights group Amnesty International, a leading critic of capital punishment.

A vast majority of the 193 member states of the United Nations have either abolished the death penalty or do not practice it.... The vote in Sierra Leone came against the backdrop of a steady march in Africa to discard brutal laws imposed by past colonial masters.  In April, Malawi ruled the death penalty unconstitutional.  In May of 2020, Chad did the same. Nearly half of Africa’s 54 independent countries have abolished the punishment, more than double the number from less than two decades ago.

While death sentences and executions have declined globally in recent years, they do not necessarily reflect the growing number of countries that have banned capital punishment.  At least some of the declines are attributable to the Covid-19 pandemic, which slowed or delayed judicial proceedings in many countries.  And in some, like the United States, federal executions were ramped up in 2020.

As in previous years, China led the 2020 list of countries that execute the most people, killing thousands, according to Amnesty International, which compiles capital punishment statistics.  The exact figures for China are not known, as its data remains a state secret.  Next in 2020 came Iran, which executed at least 246 people, and then Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and in sixth place the United States, with 17 executions.  Most of the American executions were of federal prisoners in the last six months of President Donald J. Trump’s term, a turnaround after years of an informal moratorium.

The legislators in Sierra Leone on Friday replaced the death sentence with a maximum life sentence for certain crimes, including murder and treason.  This means that judges will have the power to consider mitigating factors, such as whether the defendant has a mental illness.  They would have had no such flexibility if the lawmakers had voted instead to replace the death penalty with a mandatory life sentence....

Sierra Leone is the first of the English-speaking West African countries to abolish the punishment.  A decade ago, a commission in Ghana recommended abolition, but in recent years efforts have stalled.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, at least 2,700 people are on death row — the highest number by far on the African continent. Gambia had been on track to abolish the death penalty last year, when a new Constitution was drafted. But it was rejected by Parliament. Still, Gambia’s president has made some significant moves away from capital punishment, Mr. Popoola said.  These are all countries that, like Sierra Leone, obtained independence from the Britain in the late 1950s and 1960s — around the same time as that colonial power was carrying out its own last executions.

July 25, 2021 at 02:00 PM | Permalink

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