North America

US federal government slammed for 'barbaric' restart of death penalty


The US federal government has been sharply criticised by human rights groups for reinstating the use of capital punishment for the first time in almost two decades.

Human rights groups have slammed the “barbaric” and “political” decision by the United States federal government to reimpose the death penalty.

Attorney General William Barr has directed the Bureau of Prisons to schedule the executions of five inmates, who have been convicted of murders or rapes of children or the elderly, for December 2019 and January 2020.

The last time the federal government executed someone was in 2003.

"The Trump administration’s decision to re-start federal executions after a 16 year hiatus is barbaric. It is the ultimate cruel and inhumane punishment,” Amnesty International Australia Associate Campaigner Nikita White said.

Inside the execution chamber in the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute.
Inside the execution chamber in the US Penitentiary in Terre Haute.

The death penalty is a legal punishment in 29 US states.

In the US, crimes can be tried either in federal courts or state courts. Some crimes that apply nationally are automatically tried at a federal level. Other crimes are tried in federal courts based on their severity.

US President Donald Trump has previously said he thinks convicted criminals are treated too gently.

‘Applied discriminatorily’

Amnesty International said it recorded at least 690 executions last year, the lowest number in 10 years.

The highest numbers of known executions last year took place in China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Iraq respectively, the organisation said.

China by far remains the world’s top executioner - but the true prevalence is unknown because China keeps data classified.

Robert Brett Dunham, from the US-based Death Penalty Information Center, said many people on death row in the US are of a lower socioeconomic status.

"There's a saying that the death penalty is called capital punishment because if you don't have the capital, you get the punishment,” he said.

Amnesty's research also suggests the death penalty is applied discriminatorily, Ms White said.

"We see the death penalty is applied overwhelmingly to working class people, to ethnic minorities and to other marginalised groups that have less access to legal resources,” she said.

embers of the Abolitionist Action Committee during an annual protest and hunger strike against the death penalty outside the US Supreme Court.
Members of the Abolitionist Action Committee during an annual protest and hunger strike against the death penalty outside the US Supreme Court.

“We also know of cases, including in the US, where people have been executed and later found to be innocent. That’s not something the US government can afford to risk."

A 2014 study found that at least 4.1 per cent of people sentenced to death in the US in the modern era are innocent.

‘Incredibly disturbing’

The overall number of countries abolishing the death penalty is increasing, but a few outliers remain.

Since the end of World War II, most countries have slowly moved away from the death penalty. Only 20 countries were recorded as having executed one or more people last year, according to Amnesty.

Every country in Europe has abolished the use of the death penalty, with the exception of Belarus.

Japan and Singapore - countries many around the world see as progressive - also maintain the practice.

Captial Punishment Justice Project (CPJP), an Australian organisation advocating to end the death penalty around the world, said the US’ move is “incredibly disturbing”.

"The development in America has to be seen as, essentially, political. There's simply no need for it to happen,” CPJP president Julian McMahon said.

“Presumably, it is a strategy to gain political favour in some quarters. What they are doing is saying 'we want to jump into bed with justice systems such as we see in Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or China'.

“That is incredibly disturbing.”

The 1967 execution of Ronald Ryan, who was found guilty of shooting and killing a guard at Melbourne's Pentridge Prison, was the last to be ordered in Australia.

Australia abolished the practice fully in 1985 and has since advocated for other countries in the Asia Pacific to do the same.

The Australian government must not only keep up that pressure but extend it, Ms White said.

"They have a pretty comprehensive anti-death penalty strategy, which they can and should continue to roll out.

"The Australian government needs to be a champion for abolition, and that includes lobbying countries like the US to stop using the death penalty."

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