Anti-death penalty activists Art Laffin of Journey of Hope and demonstrates in front of the U.S. Justice Department's Robert F. Kennedy Building July 13, 2020 in Washington, DC. A U.S. District Court judge issued an injunction hours before the scheduled execution by lethal injection of Daniel Lee, 47, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. It would have been the first federal execution in 17 years. Lee was sentenced to die for the brutal 1996 murder of a family of three in Arkansas as part of a robbery aimed at raising funds for a white supremacist organization.
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April 20, 2021 10:01 PM EDT
Callamard is the Secretary General, Amnesty International

Globally, at least 483 people are known to have been executed in 2020. Shocking as this figure is, it’s the lowest number of executions recorded by Amnesty International in at least a decade, marking a decrease of 26% compared to 2019, and 70% from the peak of 1,634 executions in 2015.

It’s clear to see the death penalty is on its way out, as the number of executions and death sentences both fell in 2020.This trend was further evidenced by Chad’s welcome decision to abolish the death penalty in 2020, along with the U.S. state of Colorado. More recently Virginia became the first U.S. Southern state to repeal the death penalty, while several bills to abolish it at U.S. federal level are pending before Congress.

With more member states than ever before – 123 in total – supporting the call of the U.N. General Assembly for a moratorium on executions, pressure is growing on outliers to follow suit.

Carrying out executions in the midst of a pandemic

The decline in executions was down to a reduction in executions in some retentionist countries and, to a lesser extent, some hiatuses in executions that occurred in response to the pandemic. Recorded executions in Saudi Arabia dropped by 85%, from 184 in 2019 to 27 in 2020, and more than halved in Iraq, from 100 in 2019 to 45 in 2020.

However, the actual number of executions is certainly far higher, given the number carried out by China, North Korea, Syria and Vietnam are not known publicly. China alone is believed to execute thousands each year, making it the world’s most prolific executioner ahead of the quartet of Iran (246+), Egypt (107+), Iraq (45+) and Saudi Arabia (27), who together accounted for 88% of all known executions in 2020.

Executions were carried out by a number of other countries. too.

As the world battled to protect lives from COVID-19 in 2020, 18 countries ruthlessly carried out state sanctioned executions, with some even increasing the numbers of people they put to death.

Egypt tripled its annual rate of executions, becoming the world’s third most frequent executioner in 2020. At least 23 of those executed were sentenced to death in cases relating to political violence after grossly unfair trials that were marred by forced “confessions” and after being subjected to other grave human rights violations, including torture and enforced disappearances, in violation of international law.

The U.S. resumed federal executions after a 17-year hiatus and put a staggering 10 people to death in just six months. India resumed executions after a five-year hiatus. Oman, Qatar and Taiwan also went against the global trend of abandonment of capital punishment and resumed executions. China announced a crackdown on “criminal acts” affecting COVID-19 prevention efforts, which resulted in at least one man being sentenced to death and executed within months.

Extraordinary challenges to defend and protect those on death row

In several countries, COVID-19 restrictions only made things worse. Restrictions impeded prisoners’ access to legal counsel and other fair trial guarantees. In the U.S., defense lawyers reported they were unable to carry out crucial investigative work or meet clients face-to-face. In Singapore, at least two death sentences were delivered over a video app. In Nigeria, a man was sentenced to death by the court via video link, with his lawyer and prosecutors also connected remotely.

In several cases in the U.S., federal authorities executed people by lethal injection after the original death warrant had expired, even though motions were still pending before the courts. This was in violation of the critical safeguard under international law requiring states not to proceed with execution if appeals are pending.

The pursuit of U.S. federal executions severely curtailed prisoners’ ability to seek help where the legal representation they had received at trial and during appeals was inadequate, or for other procedural flaws that had long affected their cases – many of which were in violation of international law.

Defending yourself against a death sentence is tough at the best of times, but it proved to be far worse in the midst of a pandemic. Preparing appeals and adequately supporting those on death row under social distancing rules, reduced prison visits and with high risk of exposure to COVID-19 given its spread throughout prison populations, constituted major challenges throughout 2020. Those exceptional circumstances alone should have led all “executing” states to have halted all death penalty cases.

But in one distressing example, in the middle of the pandemic year, Wesley Ira Purkey was executed by the U.S. federal authorities in Indiana on 16 July 2020, even though a district court had stayed his execution. The court had found that Mr. Purkey suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, having been also diagnosed with complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, and psychosis. Mr. Purkey’s spiritual adviser also sought to postpone the execution, because he had health complications and was unable to support Mr. Purkey ahead of the execution. However, the federal authorities proceeded with the execution regardless.

Time to abolish the death penalty

Despite the continued application of the death penalty by some governments, the picture overall is clear: the death penalty is on its way out.

And, as the journey towards global abolition steadily advances, we call on the U.S. to take decisive action. Congress should support legislative efforts to abolish the death penalty. President Biden should grant clemency to the 49 people who remain on federal death row. U.S. state authorities should abolish the death penalty and commute all death sentences in their jurisdictions.

At a global level, all countries that have not yet repealed this punishment should end these state-sanctioned killings for good. It’s past time for the death penalty to be consigned to the dustbin of history. With partners around the world, Amnesty International will continue its campaign against the death penalty until it is abolished everywhere, once and for all.

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