The government's signing of Protocol 13 of the ‘European Convention on Human Rights' (ECHR) -- which took place this morning at a Council of Europe ceremony in Vilnius, Lithuania -- means that the UK guarantees not to re-introduce capital penalties under any circumstances, including for crimes committed in times of war.

Amnesty International warmly welcomed the government's move as 'a clear political message that the death penalty is completely unacceptable at all times.'

'Although the UK has already abolished the death penalty in all circumstances, we would still welcome a move to early ratification of Protocol 13,' said Amnesty International.

'This is a Council of Europe instrument and early ratification would hasten the progression towards making Europe a death penalty-free continent.'

Protocol 13, the first legally-binding treaty to abolish the death penalty in all circumstances with no exceptions, closes a gap left under an earlier ECHR standard (protocol 6) which allowed executions for acts committed in times of war or imminent danger of war. The organisation hopes that this will be a step towards universal abolition of the death penalty

Amnesty International is now urging Council of Europe countries that have not yet ratified Protocol 6 - Armenia, Russia and Turkey - to quickly ratify both protocols, thereby demonstrating their opposition to capital punishment.

The introduction of the ‘total abolition' standard comes shortly after Amnesty International's world death penalty survey showed that the number of people executed in 2001 was at least 3,048, more than double the 1,457 executions recorded in 2000.

Last year's leap in executions (largely due to China's execution of at least 2,468 people in a national 'strike hard' anti-crime campaign) coincided with other significant progress towards abolition. By the end of the year 111 countries had cumulatively abolished the death penalty in law or practice, three more than at the end of 2000.

Protocol 13 also begins life on the day that the US state of South Carolina is set to execute Richard Johnson despite serious doubts about his guilt. Mr Johnson's 1986 conviction relied on trial testimony later retracted as well as unreliable co-defendant and ‘jailhouse' testimony. Amnesty International is calling on the state governor to commute his death sentence.

While European nations are this year signing up to the Council of Europe's death penalty-free zone, the US is likely in 2002 to exceed 800 executions since the death penalty's reintroduction there 25 years ago.

For Amnesty International's worldwide survey of the death penalty (9/4/02):…

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