Governments Embrace Death Sentences in Fight Against Terrorism

A new report by rights group Amnesty International documents how some governments have stepped up the use of executions as part of their counterterrorism efforts.


From crackdowns on minorities in western China to moves toward greater surveillance and detention powers in Europe, 2014 saw governments around the world encroaching on human rights in the name of fighting terrorism. A new report by rights group Amnesty International documents how some governments have stepped up the use of executions as part of their counterterrorism efforts.

Amnesty’s annual report on death sentences and executions around the world, released Tuesday, shows a mixed record for 2014. At least 607 people were executed last year, a 22 percent drop from 2013, but the number of death sentences issued rose 28 percent. Those figures don’t account for most executions in countries that refuse to report their executions, such as North Korea, Vietnam, and China, the last of which executes thousands each year, according to Amnesty.

But through the mixed and sometimes lacking data, one theme was clear over the past year, the group said in a statement Tuesday. “The disturbing trend of states using the death penalty to combat threats against state security was visible around the world, with China, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq all executing people accused of ‘terrorism.’”

In Pakistan, the government ended a six-year moratorium on the execution of civilians after a devastating Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar in mid-December that left at least 149 people dead, including 132 children. Before the month was out, the government had executed seven people charged with terrorism and promised to execute hundreds more who’d been waiting on death row on terrorism charges.

Other countries moved toward introducing new laws to make terrorism punishable by death last year, the report notes. Cameroon’s legislature voted to adopt such a bill in December, and an anti-terrorism law in the United Arab Emirates widened the scope of the country’s death penalty to include various crimes related to terrorism. Members of Kenya’s parliament made calls for similar legislation. In Russia, four political parties introduced a draft law to the Duma asking to end the country’s moratorium on the death penalty, in place since the 1990s, in cases involving terrorism and murder.


Credit: Amnesty International

Using the fight against terrorism to justify execution in a different way, Nigerian military courts sentenced dozens of soldiers to death on charges of mutiny for refusing to fight the terrorist group Boko Haram late last year, the report says.

Amnesty campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty and opposes its use regardless of the crimes a person’s been charged with. It argues that the practice’s proponents should realize how easily innocent people can be sentenced to death — and how growing concerns over terrorism only heighten that risk.

“There are so many different ways that things can go wrong in terms of the link between being labeled a terrorist and then being sentenced to the death penalty,” Julia Hall, an expert on counterterrorism and human rights for Amnesty, told Foreign Policy.

In the aftermath of 9/11, the world has experienced what Hall called an “extraordinary expansion in the definition of what constitutes a terrorist act or who should be labeled a terrorist.”

“So you have everything from your basic racial and ethnic profiling to the idea that people who are political opponents or human rights defenders — or people who the regime perceives as not a threat to national security but a threat to the power of the government — can automatically be labeled as terrorists,” Hall said.

Amnesty says it’s “particularly concerned” by the use of the death penalty in China’s “Strike Hard” campaign in its northwest, where the Chinese government is known to have executed 13 people in June and eight people in August on charges mostly relating to terrorism. The Chinese government claims it’s combating a violent campaign by Uighur separatists to achieve independence. Critics say the Chinese government has often mischaracterized discontent with its rule in the region as terrorism.


Credit: Amnesty International

According to Amnesty, China is the world’s leading executioner, but the Chinese government refuses to release statistics on its use of the death penalty and has classified these figures as state secrets.

Despite resistance from some countries, long-term trends look more positive for death penalty opponents. The number of countries carrying out executions fell from 41 in 1995 to 22 last year, while the number of nations to have abolished the death penalty climbed from 59 to 98 in that time period.

Still, certain countries continue to hand down executions for crimes whose severity seems to fall far short of the punishment. China, North Korea, and Vietnam impose the death penalty for crimes like corruption; the Democratic Republic of the Congo for armed robbery; the United Arab Emirates for adultery; Iran for insulting the Prophet Mohammed; Pakistan for blasphemy; and Saudi Arabia for witchcraft, sorcery, and kidnapping.

Mohamed Abdiwahab/AFP/Getty Images

Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. @jkdrennan

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