Our answer to terrorism cannot be the death penalty

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Op-ed by Florence Bellivier, former president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President published in Libération (in French).

The abolition of the death penalty has followed the course of history. The numbers speak for themselves. In 1977, only sixteen countries had abolished the death penalty. Nearly forty years later, two-thirds of the countries have abolished it in law and in practice, a sign of clear thinking on the part of public opinion and governments concerning inhumane and pointless sentences. But, let us not be fooled, the global tendency towards abolition is not in the least ineluctable. During the last few years, a particularly disturbing phenomenon has even developed: in the name of countering terrorism, an increasing number of countries have re-instated capital punishment.

Nigeria, Bangladesh and Tunisia recently added certain acts of terrorism to the list of crimes punishable by death. Others, who have respected a moratorium on executions for many years, have re-instated this gruesome practice. This is the case for Chad which, battling Boko Haram, resumed executions in 2015, after a twelve-year moratorium. Pakistan started executing again in December 2014. But in Karachi, the fight against terrorism was only an excuse for bringing back the death penalty. Only 10% of the death sentences handed down over the past two years were for terrorist acts. The Pakistani death rows are mostly made up of thousands of common law offenders. 

Elsewhere, a very hazy concept of terrorism is being used to prevent any and all forms of opposition. Iran uses this type of charge, for instance, to execute individuals whose only crime is that of belonging to a certain ethnic or religious minority.

In other parts of the globe, the fight against terrorism is used above all for silencing the opposition. In Egypt, an August 2015 law now allows the death penalty to be pronounced on leaders of "terrorist entities". Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood were thus sentenced to the death penalty, following expeditious trials, sometimes based on forced confessions.

Ignoring the rules of a fair trial is, after all, the trademark of countries that adopt the death penalty.

Aware of these arbitrary decisions, civil society has learned over the years to mobilise. Examples of this are the overturning of sentences for convicted persons with mental problems, or the demanding of a re-trial for a very likely legal error. But who would mobilise to save a terrorist from imminent execution? Not many... and yet: our moral duties cannot be selective: respect for the right to life must always prevail. It is clear that we must condemn those who sow terror... but not by doing as they do. Execution is a tool of the terrorists, it does not belong in the rule of law. “When a democratic state sentences terrorists to the death penalty, it is itself using the methods of terrorists”, Françoise Rudetzki, founder of "SOS attentats" often repeats.

The supporters of capital punishment usually raise but one single argument: dissuasion. According to them, brandishing the spectre of death prevents many from carrying out the act. Wrong. The correlation between the reduction of crime rate and the practice of the death penalty has never been proven, and, even if it were one day, it certainly would not apply to terrorism. Those who plant bombs apparently are not afraid of death. To top it off, capital punishment can be used by these same terrorists to convince their troops that reprisal is justified, and thus feed into the cycle of violence.

It’s easy to play on public emotion after bloodshed, to justify returning to capital punishment - as we saw from President Erdogan’s proposals after the failed coup d’etat in Turkey this summer. Yet it’s much harder to convince public opinion to move towards abolition. This struggle could last decades. The French example is a good illustration: between the fiery speech of Jean Jaurès in 1908 - that capital punishment is "contrary to the highest aspirations and the most noble dreams of humanity", - and the 1981 vote for abolition, many a life has been sacrificed. Save us from this great leap backward, incited by the terrorists who, by spilling our blood, put our values to the test.

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