Number of executions rises around the world

The number of people being executed around the world rose significantly in 2008 compared to the previous year, according to Amnesty International.
There were 2,390 executions worldwide last year, with an overwhelming 72 per cent of those being carried out in China (the host of the Olympics).
Japan executed highest number for over 30 years, while Belarus remains the “last executioner in Europe”.
Amnesty’s annual survey of global death penalty use shows at least 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries last year, up from 1,252 in 2007.
Methods used included beheading, hanging, stoning, lethal injection and electrocution.
Only 13 “hardcore” countries have executed prisoners every year for the last five years: Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Vietnam, USA and Yemen.
Amnesty said there was “comparatively good news” in that only one in eight countries (25) carried out executions last year and only slightly more than a quarter (59) even retain capital punishment.
China alone carried out nearly three-quarters of the world’s executions (1,718), and 10 other countries from Asia – Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Japan, North Korea, Malaysia, Mongolia, Pakistan, Singapore and Vietnam – also carried out judicial killings.
Japan carried out 15 executions, the highest number in the country since 1975.
The Middle East is the other world region notable for its reliance on capital punishment, with Iran (at least 346) and Saudi Arabia (at least 102) especially prone to carrying out executions.
Amnesty recently revealed that Iraq (which last year executed at least 34 people) is set to execute another 128 prisoners, reportedly in batches of 20 at a time.
Meanwhile Belarus, which executed four people last year, is shown to be the last executioner in Europe.
Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan said: “The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. Beheadings, electrocutions, hangings, lethal injections, shootings and stonings have no place in the twenty-first century.
“Capital punishment is not just an act but a legalised process of physical and psychological terror that culminates in people being killed by the state. It must be brought to an end.”
Amnesty’s report, which was launched today, emphasised the risk of executing innocent prisoners.
The USA released four people from death row last year, taking to 130 the number of death row exonerees since 1973.

Pierrepoint and the last man to be hanged in Cardiff

Pierrepoint, a film about the most prolific British hangman of the last century, opened this month.
It contains by all accounts a remarkable portrayal by Timothy Spall of the man who executed an average of 18 people a year between 1932 and 1956.
Albert Pierrepoint saw himself as part of the state machinery. His role, he believed flatly, was to dispatch the convicted man or woman as “humanely” as possible.
In this way – reckoning he was “chosen by a higher power for the task” – he ended the lives of an estimated 433 men and 17 women.
By isolating his ‘contribution’ to the justice system from the investigation, prosecution and judgement, he was able to shut his mind to any campaigns for clemency and even to the matter of whether the condemned for whom he was calculating the length of the drop was guilty or innocent.
He said: “A condemned prisoner is entrusted to me, after decisions have been made which I cannot alter…The supreme mercy I can extend to them is to give them and sustain in them their dignity in dying and in death.”
He ended the lives of Rhyl-born Ruth Ellis (whom it is claimed should only have faced manslaughter charges and should not have hanged) and Timothy Evans, of Merthyr Vale, who was executed after a travesty of justice during which the real killer, John Christie, actually gave evidence against him.
Evans was hanged in 1950 but received a posthumous pardon 16 years later. The then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins said: “This case has no precedent and will, I hope, have no successor.”
A sweeping statement if ever there was one. There is, of course, no way of knowing how many of the previous victims of the scaffold were innocent.
But there was one case already in the system which would dash Jenkins’ hopes that Evans would have “no successor”.
And this too involved Albert Pierrepoint, the dispassionate dispatcher.
For some reason – in fact, for no good reason I can discover – the executioner of Somali seaman Mahmood Mattan appears to have gone publicly unrecorded, even by exhaustive websites such as
But I discovered it was Pierrepoint after making a Freedom of Information Act request to the Home Office.
And the Cardiff prison files it sent me make sobering reading, consisting as they do of contemporaneous notes by people, who no doubt like Pierrepoint, saw themselves as only cogs in the state machinery.
A letter from the governor asks whether it will be necessary to recall the chaplain from his annual leave to attend Mr Mattan’s execution, particularly as the prisoner is a “Mohammedan”. If so, asks the governor, will the chaplain have his travel expenses from Paignton reimbursed?
The police contact the prison on behalf of a pawnbroker who does not want Mr Mattan hanged in a suit which they have loaned him.
And a document stamped on the day of Mr Mattan’s death details the governor’s “honour” of recording the “judicial hanging”.
One printed question reads: “Has he (Pierrepoint) performed his duty satisfactorily?” The governor’s response is handwritten: “Yes.”
Pierrepoint admitted after he had retired: “I do not now believe that any one of the hundreds of executions I carried out has in any way acted as a deterrent against future murder. Capital punishment, in my view, achieved nothing except revenge.”
An honest assessment of hanging then from someone who knew what he was talking about.
Mr Mattan was executed on September 3, 1952, the last person hanged in Cardiff jail. In 1998 his conviction was overturned. He was entirely innocent, victim of an appallingly racist trial.
1952, parents and grandparents will point out, is not all that long ago. It’s the year of I Love Lucy and Singin’ In The Rain, of Freddie Trueman, Nat Lofthouse, the Lynmouth floods, the year – forgive me for telling you this – David Hasselhoff and Robin Williams were born.
Today, Mr Mattan would be in his early eighties.
The documents from his cell are a warning from our recent history.
And a reminder that we should be grateful that Pierrepoint and the other gallows bureaucrats are consigned to the past.

First published in the Big Issue

Katherine Horton’s killers and the death sentence

Two Thai fishermen have been sentenced to death for the rape and murder of Welsh backpacker Katherine Horton.
There are few words to describe the manner of the 21-year-old student’s death. It was simply brutal and despicable.
But that should not stop us from questioning the Thai authorities’ decision to fast-track the men’s trial and sentencing.
Bualoi Posit, 23, and Wichai Somkhaoyai, 24, who are illiterate and had no witnesses presented by their defence, deserved the fairest trial like everyone else. Not just for their sake, but for the sake of justice and for Katherine’s family.
The speed of the process, based on Thai police claims about DNA evidence and the two men’s alleged confession, is bound to cause consternation, particularly when considered alongside the political interference in the case.
Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was so worried about the consequences of the murder on his country’s tourism industry that he stepped in to appeal for the killers to be executed.
Murder cases usually take months to conclude in Thailand, but in this case sentencing took place only 17 days after the attack and only nine days after their arrest.
Katherine’s family have been remarkable throughout their ordeal.
While waiting for the sentencing, her mother Elizabeth told the News of the World: “I’ve never believed in the death penalty, but I believe life means life.
“A life sentence would be appropriate. I don’t agree with taking anyone’s life and Katherine wouldn’t believe in that either. I don’t think that serves any purpose. If they are behind bars until they die it will stop it happening to anyone else.”
It is not difficult for the observer, campaigner or commentator to argue against the death penalty. But to do so from Elizabeth Horton’s position shows courage, dignity and incredible strength of character. Hers are not words it should be easy for anyone to ignore.

The State Avenger

Stanley ‘Tookie’ Williams has been executed. The Terminator had the opportunity to reprieve him but there was no mercy there.
California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has now rejected three appeals for clemency by death row prisoners.
Williams had been nominated five times for a Nobel prize and, it is said, if he did not deserve a reprieve then who does.
But the campaign against the death penalty is not about who least deserves the noose, bullet, chair or chemical pellet.
State killing is simply totally unacceptable and the state has no more right to cause death as part of its legal processes than an individual has to murder on the streets.
It does not matter whether Williams showed remorse or otherwise, campaigned against violence or did not, claimed his innocence or admitted his guilt.
States that execute are carrying out the policy of the avenger and not dispensing justice.

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