Do you know the day on which youre going to die?
No, I don’t suppose you do. I’ve seen this grim question around a few times, one of those reel-in-the-curious-punter tags on the internet that get people clicking on commercial horoscope sites or whatever.
Leaving aside a few specific instances (Dignitas assisted suicide etc), most people don’t know the answer and probably wouldn’t want to know. Would you …?
But, there’s an exception. Capital punishment. With its setting of a precise execution date the death penalty creates a sort of appointment with death. It basically flies in the face of our usual relationship with dying. I reckon it’s deeply unnatural to be told you are going to die at a certain date hence and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s it. You’re going to die.
Here are three real dates and real examples of the death penalty being carried out last year (taken from Amnesty’s new report on the death penalty):
On 18 March Andrei Zhuk and Vasily Yuzepchuk (who’d been convicted of a murder and other offences in 2009) were shot in the back of the head in prison in Minsk in Belarus. Their relatives were not told beforehand. Here’s how Andrei’s mother found out. On 19 March she went to the prison to try to deliver a food parcel but was told her son Vasily “had been moved”. Three days later, on 22 March, she was told the two men had been executed. She was also informed that her son’s body would not be returned and she wouldn’t be allowed to know where he was buried. (In fact the process was so secretive that we’re actually not totally sure on which day the men were killed, though it was around 18-19 March. Presumably the men were told a little beforehand – not so much a date, perhaps, more like “we’re going to kill you at 4pm today”).
On 21 August Jose Abeso Nsue, Manuel Ndong Anseme, Jacinto Micha Obiang and Alipio Ndong Asumu were shot by a firing squad in Equatorial Guinea, in west Africa, in relation to an alleged attack on the country’s presidential palace in 2009. This was a “fast-track” killing. The four, two former military officers, a border guard and a civilian, were shot just one hour after their death sentences were handed down in a military court. Their trial had been unfair and they didn’t get the chance to lodge appeals (in contravention of international and domestic law). In prison they’d been held incommunicado and were reportedly tortured.
On 27 September Brandon Rhode was killed by lethal injection in the US state of Georgia for the murder of three people in 1998. Brandon had been set to die six days before this but tried to “pre-empt” this appointment with death …. by killing himself. On 21 September, a few hours before he was due to be taken to the execution chamber, he made deep cuts in his arms and neck with a razor blade. However, he was saved. He suffered severe blood loss but was treated in hospital (you can see one of the stitched-up wounds here). Nevertheless, six days later his execution went ahead.
(See the full report for much more info on the death penalty. Be warned, some of it, like these cases, is distinctly distressing to read).
When I was young my brother and myself used to like “Appointment with Fear”, a Friday night horror film slot on ATV (Midlands ITV). We’d wait for it all week (er, appointment TV they now call it). It was scary stuff when you’re ten. Even now there’s something sinister about that “appointment”. It’s echoed in Márquez's masterly and terrifying Chronicle Of A Death Foretold: fear and death aren’t supposed to be things you know about in advance. This kind of prior knowledge is unnatural and unsettling.
As Amnesty’s global survey shows, there’s a pronounced historical trend clearly evident: year by year countries around the world are getting rid of capital punishment. And not before time. (Please go here to press the Mongolian authorities go ahead with their intended abolition of capital punishment; and please go here to lobby the Iranian authorities to halt their reckless, headlong use of judicial killing).
There are a host of reasons why the death penalty should be killed off once and for all (some of them are laid out here) but one of them is indicated by the macabre habit of setting a date on which to kill a fellow human being. Basically, there’s never a good time to carry out judicial killing. But there’s one good time to end the practice permanently: now.
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.