Crucifixion? (Not) good

IMHO, there are four funny moments in Monty Python’s “Life Of Brian”. Namely – the famous “What have the Romans ever done for us?” scene (though it’s not as funny as you probably remember!), Brian’s mother (the excellent Terry Jones), and the torturer who keeps grunting when he’s asked questions by the caring-sharing Roman in charge of organising executions.

OK, that’s three! The fourth is the bit where the hand-wringing chief of executions is checking the condemned prisoners off against his list. “Crucifixion? Good. Crucifixion? Good. Crucifixion? Good.”

Incredibly enough, crucifixions haven’t entirely died out two millennia later. I’m not entirely sure when one was last carried out (in the 90s, in the UAE I think) but Amnesty’s new report on executions worldwide says that the penalty of crucifixion still exists in certain countries (the actual punishment is to be put into a cruciform position after execution, but it’s close enough). Read media coverage on the report here and here

Yet because we’ve “advanced” since the time of the Romans we’ve also now got electrocution and lethal injection. Not forgetting the old favourites: hanging, beheading and (another one from Life Of Brian) stoning. Yes, stonings still occur – several people in Iran currently face death by being pummelled to death by a hail of stones while half-buried in a hole in the ground. Unbelievable? Check it out here.

Pro-death penalty types like to pretend that everything’s actually quite civilised about capital punishment. They’ve probably got an image of the punctilious, immaculately-dressed Albert Pierrepoint hangman in their heads. The reality, as far as I can see, is totally the opposite.

In Japan prisoners are hauled out of their cells on the morning of their execution with absolutely no warning; even their families don’t know it’s going to happen until they’ve actually been killed. In Belarus the condemned are shot in the back of the head – apparently with a silenced Makarov pistol – and buried in a secret location. In Saudi Arabia people are beheaded in front of crowds in “Chop Chop” square; many of those who go to this medieval form of death in Saudi Arabia are poor foreign workers from Africa and Asia – in other words, yes, you’ve guessed it … they don’t have the money or contacts to negotiate clemency deals.

Ok, it’s unpleasant and often unfair, but does it “work”? This is the other smelly canard of the pro-DP types: the “but it’s a necessary deterrent” argument. We’d end up with rampant murder rates otherwise, they say. Iraq’s leaders apparently bought into this argument after the US invasion. They brought back the death penalty and since then they’ve executed and sentenced to death hundreds of people. But at least they’ve managed to get spiralling violence under control. Oh, er, no …. that’s not quite right is it?

(Please take action for 128 people currently facing execution in Iraq; and, similarly, please add your voice to our appeals for Hakamada Iwao in Japan, subject of a post last week).

“When you look at it, life’s a piece of sh*t”, says the deranged, whistle-while-you’re-crucified Eric Idle character from Life Of Brian. But it isn’t, and I prefer the earlier bit where Idle’s madcap character temporarily tricks Palin’s master of executions by simply answering “No, freedom” to his question “Crucifixion?” (“Oh, okay, that’s marvellous. Off you go then”). In reality it’s not a matter of crucifixion v freedom though. It’s a matter of killing off the cruelty of capital punishment once and for all. Discuss! 

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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