Numerology, or 1,000 reasons to oppose the death penalty

Let’s start with a numbers question. How many people is a thousand people? Not as easy as it sounds. Ever been at an event and someone asked you to say how many were there? You inevitably go: “Oh, about 200. No wait, maybe 300. No, less. Oh, I don’t know. A lot!”

Now imagine 1,000 people. Basically, it’s too many to take in. Put it like this – how many people have you got in the contacts of your phone? Unless you’re superlatively social I bet it’s way less than 1,000, right? (I have it on good authority, by the way, that even that uber-networker Peter Mandelson only has 470 people in his iPhone…).

OK, so 1,000 is a lot of people and yet that’s how many are on death row in Iraq right now. It’s a staggeringly large number and it’s sort of taken the world by surprise. It’s not what people think of when they picture Iraq. Sectarian violence and horrible bombings, yes; courts sentencing people to death on a weekly basis, no.

It’s people like Samar Sa’ad ‘Abdullah we’re talking about. She’s a 27-year-old woman who’s been found guilty of murder but only, she says, after she was viciously tortured (electric shocks, beatings with a cable) into making a false confession. If past examples are anything to go by, being beaten into making a phoney confession is common in Iraq, and meanwhile Samar’s trial lasted a grand total of one and a bit days and one of her lawyers was even ordered out of the court by the trial judge.

So Samar is now living (if that’s the right word) in the shadow of the hangman, one of at least a dozen women on death row in Iraq and one of about 150 who’ve exhausted their appeals and are perilously close to execution.

Staying with numbers, a few years back we did some number crunching at Amnesty and worked out that there were about 20,000 people on death row in the world, with the largest number in Pakistan (about 7,000). The USA has about 3,500. The country that executes the most – China, which kills thousands every year – has an unknown number (massive secrecy) but may not have so many actually facing execution for the simple – and very grim – reason that killings are carried out quickly. So, from a figure of zero back in 2004 (rather ironically the American-led interim Iraqi government suspended Iraq’s death penalty after Saddam’s fall), Iraq five years later has one of world’s biggest death rows and one of the planet’s highest execution rates. Progress, eh?

Has this done what the Iraq authorities said it would, ie help stem rampant violence in the country? Er, no. To judge by the carnage of the last half decade, definitely not. Governments all around the world like to play tough on crime, pretending – with absolutely no evidence to back it up – that sending people to hang/die by lethal injection/be shot/face decapitation is going to act as a deterrent against crime. It’s rubbish and they know it is.

So let’s end with some more numbers. In particular, a number of reasons why the death penalty is wrong:

(1) It provides no deterrent against crime(2) It’s a cruel, inhumane punishment(3) It’s the ultimate denial of life, in contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (4) It’s irreversible and therefore runs the risk of executing innocent people(5) It’s arbitrary – some get executed, some don’t, even in the same country(6) It frequently comes after a unfair trial(7) It’s often applied in a discriminatory or political manner(8) It may come after a false confession, not least after torture(9) It does not allow for rehabilitation

That’s nine. This list is non-exhaustive. Please add your own. For all I know, there may even be 1,000 reasons ….

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