Death penalty still a point of debate

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Last week, Iraq’s former Deputy Prime Minister was sentenced to death. This Sunday, the Netherlands marks 150 years since the last peacetime execution, but the debate on the pros and cons of capital punishment rages on unabated.

When Johann Nathan was hanged on 31 October 1860 for murdering his mother-in-law, he couldn’t have known it represented a milestone. To mark the fateful event, the University of Maastricht has organised a conference, “Beyond the death penalty”

The last time someone was condemned to death in the Netherlands was in 1952, when the last of more than 40 people convicted of war crimes committed during World War II was executed. These death sentences had been handed down under special jurisprudence introduced to deal with the exceptional circumstances of the German occupation.

Peacetime capital punishment was abolished in the Netherlands in 1870. In 1983 it was also abolished in times of war. The 1870 repeal was preceded by some ten years of public debate. Professor Chrisje Brants of the University of Utrecht says the move was part of an international nineteenth-century development:

“Increasingly the elite began to feel an aversion towards the spectacle of the death sentence being carried out in public. A new awareness also grew that prison sentences could serve not just as a deterrent but also as a means of moral reform. We don’t know if the common people also wished to see capital punishment abolished. The prevailing guess is they didn’t." 

The death penalty, in consequence, remained the subject of heated debate throughout the nineteenth-century. In 1798, Liechtenstein was one of the first countries to abolish capital punishment. It is now banned in most Western countries.

Ultimate punishment
“The ultimate punishment is no longer seen as something that ‘just is part of the system’ but as a human rights violation”, says David Garland, Professor of Sociology at New York University, one of the conference’s speakers.

The main exception is the United States. Many of its states still have the death penalty on the books. However, as Professor Garland subtly points out, the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Rhode Island abolished capital punishment in the 1840s and 1850s, long before the Netherlands did.

EU admission requirement
Many Asian and African nations have capital punishment but, in practice, not all of them carry out executions. Most Latin American countries no longer impose capital punishment. An EU requirement for accession stipulates that candidate member states do not carry out the death sentence.

Professor Garland finds that the death penalty is less and less frequently imposed. Many former Soviet bloc countries have issued a moratorium on capital punishment. Most of these countries hope to join the EU at some point in the future.

Stay on public executions
Professor Garland says that even countries such as China and Iran, where the death penalty is quite frequently imposed, show a decrease in the number of death sentences, possibly as a result of international pressure. Practices have been adjusted as well. China, for instance, has banned public executions.

And, following the example of the US, most condemned Chinese criminals are now executed by lethal injection instead of by firing squad. Each case has to go through the Beijing Supreme Court; local courts no longer have the authority to impose the death sentence.

Few protests
David Garland says very few protests were heard in the West when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was executed. “Even leaders from countries which have abolished the death penalty, such as the United Kingdom and the Netherlands did not seem to mind much”. Then prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende and his foreign minister Ben Bot even showed some understanding for the sentence, even though they said it could never have happened in the Netherlands.

Re-introduction in the Netherlands?
And yet, every once in a while, someone will argue for re-introduction of the death penalty. In particular regarding child rapists, polls time and again show that a wide majority of the population would like to re-introduce capital punishment.

Re-introduction of the death penalty in the Netherlands would not be an easy matter. After all, the EU does not want member states that allow the death penalty. However, nothing can be ruled out now that populist parties are playing an important role in the governments of an increasing number of member states.

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