Methods and obstacles for elimination of the death penalty

Universal Tolerance – October 10 , 2013 – By: Mohammad Mostafaei
Introduction: October 10 is the world day against the death penalty, a day that can be reminiscent of respect for human dignity and right to life. A day in which many human rights activists and organizations object to death penalty sentences and chant “No to the death penalty” like previous years.

Time passes and we face harsher realities tackling the death penalty. Some countries replace the death penalty with imprisonment, this brings us to the point that human rights organizations have not yet found appropriate ways and mostly not interested to actually limit or eliminate the death penalty. One can conclude that many human rights institutions do not only show off to get reputation, but also care more about financial stability of their organizations exclusively. However, it cannot be denied that there are numbers of supportive organizations that are devoted to their work.
This day has been an opportunity for me to communicate about ways of fighting against the death penalty. I have zest for advocacy against the death penalty. Being hailed in Iran with its death penalty legal system, I started my career as a lawyer more professionally in 2004. Islamic law was replaced in Iran after the 1979 revolution. My practical and theoretical work enabled me to actively fight against the death penalty for six years. During this time, I visited 300 prisoners who were sentenced to death. I defended their cases, but focused more on children under the age of 18, among whom I successfully saved 25 from execution. Besides, I defended 13 convicts who were sentenced to stoning and saved 11 of them. The other two are still in prison. Prior to 2010, in cooperation with many human rights activists and journalists, I was able to launch the international campaigns of stop stoning and execution of children, which resulted in many positive reforms in Iran’s legal rules. That is to say, the death penalty was dropped as a punishment to many crimes committed by children under 18. In August 2010, I was forced to leave Iran and seek refuge in Norway and have continued my human rights activism till date.
Living outside Iran is an eye-opener to me in which I have been able to realize that some human rights organizations prioritize presenting a good face to the world rather than conducting effective work on the ground. In effect, I try to say that whenever an unfair policy is adopted, elimination of the death penalty is not met but only met with lip service. Slogan is not enough and reasonable practical methods are necessary for elimination of the death penalty.
What can be done against the death penalty?
In this article I have mentioned ten steps in the process of fighting the death penalty. It is not necessary to review the disadvantages of the death penalty as many scholars have talked about it; much research has been done and many books written on the subject. I have stipulated herein a step-by-step approach to be ascended till we get to the last rung of the ladder on the path to fight against the death penalty. These steps are the social, cultural, political and economic conditions of specific periods in each society. Elimination of the death penalty needs different procedure in Islamic countries in comparison to un-Islamic countries. This does not mean that elimination of the death penalty is not possible, but needs more cautious strategies. It is commonly believed that human kind no matter from what part of the world is by nature kind and passionate, but surrounding conditions, religious, political, cultural, and economic situations have caused persistence of death penalty in legal systems. I have explained the model of steps in this article, but if anybody requires more elaboration I would be happy to discuss the issue in person.
First step:
The first step is to remove any slogans against the death penalty and proceed with practical work. We have heard for thousand times: “ no death penalty”, “ stop execution”, “ death penalty is against humanity”, “ death penalty is a barbaric punishment” and “ we condemn death penalty” . I personally do not oppose such slogans, but reality shows that slogans move us away from our original goal. When in a Muslim country in which the death penalty is highly practiced, such a slogan is chanted, it indicates that the Islamic law is challenged publically, because the death penalty is permitted by the Islamic law and it is not possible to eradicate it from the Islamic rules by slogans. As for the death penalty, power does not count if it is not managed wisely. Fighting against Islamic law surely is not a good option to eliminate the death penalty, which is the reason many human rights organizations are active in Muslim countries and other countries like India. In-depth research and fundamental studies are essential to understand how the death penalty should be challenged in different context.
The only possible way to challenge the death penalty is to save the lives of convicts who are in death row especially in Islamic countries. This can gradually pave the way for limiting the scope of crimes with death punishment. This step is the first and foremost step in the process of fighting against the death penalty. Expensive seminars, conferences and meetings are not leading us anywhere; rather cultural and social activities on the ground are the most effective strategies for replacing violence with peace and tolerance.
Second step
The second step is to identify and sympathize with culprits from the moment the legal case is filed. Some human rights organizations wrongfully wait until a person is executed and start working on a dead person’s case by issuing statements of condemnation and writing reports. The involvement of human rights activists is not effective when legal procedure of the death penalty case is finished and execution is about to take place. This method is not appropriate and not only does it not lead to elimination of the death penalty, but also provokes the states’ irrational reactions no matter what political system the country holds. This has been seen in communist countries as well as democratic states such as the US, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. This method has become a habitual practice without paying attention to the accused that has been denied rights for months and years. In order to save a person from the death penalty, it is essential to approach the person and publicize their case through the media and civil society activists. This step is to find out what type of crimes are punished by the death penalty, what part of the society and which people are more engaged in crimes.
Third step
The next step, which is the third step, is to create a personal file for each accused and culprit who has been identified. Personal file can provide the attorney with a lot of information about the personal and social characteristics of the accused for better defense. Knowing the personal and social background of the accused is very much linked with fighting against the death penalty. “No one is born criminal”. Examining personality of the accused can be used to prove how social factors and various problems in life can push people to commit different crimes punishable by the death penalty. I have analyzed my clients’ legal and personal files during my work in Iran and understood that many of whom I defended their cases went through many social, cultural and economic problems which turned them in to criminals. For example, education system in the area was insufficient. Many who were sentenced to death were innocent and didn’t deserve to die, because they had no knowledge about what they did and no lawyer to defend them or confessed under torture. They mostly committed crimes under hard conditions without having intention in a sudden incident committed crimes such as murder. Through personal file, one can learn about the background of the person and the leading factors to criminal acts.
Forth step
Focusing on the culprit instead of the crime and punishment is the next important step to take especially in countries in which the death penalty is legalized. We should look at criminal as an ill person who needs treatment and help to be cured. It is important to protect an ill person not to kill him for his/her sickness. In most of the countries around the world, crime has been the focus of legal system for which laws and regulations are set to prevent or eradicate crimes with heavy punishments. Sometimes states vanish the criminal in order to eradicate specific crimes, this is when human rights activists and organization appear to play their role. They should use their power and balance the power relation to supervise respect for human rights and look at criminals as those in need of help who are somehow the victims of crimes themselves. They should suse their power and protect the rights of accused or culprit from the beginning of the legal case until they are saved. It is their responsibility to act as rescuers of people’s lives, lobby and negotiate possible ways of crime prevention with governments if necessary to stop executions.
Fifth step
Theoretical studies and field work about the crime is the next step after we generated personal files for the accused or culprits. Life conditions and specific situations of different people who committed crimes can be easily examined and studied for the purpose of elimination of the death penalty after we have a background history about each person. Life history and background of each person who is involved in a crime can affect the public’s mind about the concept of being criminal. Today, society rejects any criminal because of radical ideologies about the death penalty and negative propagation against the perpetrators. In fact, the public has become more eager to witness deaths of criminals which is a bad sign for further progress in fighting against the death penalty and needs scholars to study and research how to draw public sympathy towards convicts who face death penalty.
Sixth step
One of the most crucial steps within the process of fighting against the death penalty is to increase knowledge of people about the roots and origins of crimes committed by different persons. Among others, “culture of violence” or “revenge” is the most destructive obstacle facing those who fight against the death penalty. Although, many religions have rejected violence and revenge as a method of punishment, there are countries in which culture of violence is prevalent. On this step, human rights activists and organizations should struggle to replace the culture of violence with culture of peace and friendship. Analyzing personal files by sociologists, psychologists, and criminologists helps to find origins of crimes and celebrities, artists, and popular persons can largely contribute in removing culture of violence in society and convince the society that death penalty is not an appropriate way to overcome crimes, because people who commit crimes usually live under hard conditions and too pressured to think about consequences of committing crimes. Preventive punishments might have short time effects but certainly are not effective in long term.
Seventh step
The media and communication strategies should be adopted in the next step. Any kind of the media including radio, television, newspaper, and websites can be highly influential in changing the culture of violence to peace, friendship and tolerance. Media can cover news and views of activists and scholars about every death penalty case and broadcast the authorities’ reactions to each case in order to enlighten the public about unrevealed stories. Educational programs, cultural festivals and documentary films are very useful to impact on the cultural values against the death penalty.
Eighth step
After climbing all the above-mentioned steps, it is time to write letter and petitions, issue statements and draft reports for collective action against death penalty. It is important to note that every step should be taken in order and one at the time. Jumping from step one to step eight is not productive while many organizations have based their activities on step eight which is limited to collecting signatures, writing letters and so on which results in nothing but waste of time, receiving donation and drawing attentions of the world. This step is influential when we have passed the previous steps of hard work on the ground. Campaigns and coalitions can be formed at this stage because the society is ready to receive more information about legal reforms. We can hope that laws regarding the death penalty will be evolved.
Ninth step
On this step, we should seek to find systematic and practical solutions to eliminate the death penalty. Negotiation with members of parliament, authorities and religious leaders are useful to pave the way for further discussion on the elimination or limitation of the death penalty. As for my experience, I worked hard to analyze legal cases related to children execution and stoning in order to broaden the view of the world about legal rules in Iran. I and my colleague activists climbed up every and each of these steps to reach our goals.
Tenth step
This step is the elimination of the death penalty for which mid-term and short-term plans are required to change the structure of society and particular violent culture. Various strategies such as education and advocacy for tolerance are constructive enough to promote culture of peace and tolerance. It is not realistic to expect a society change its acts and attitudes overnight especially in Islamic countries, but long-term plans can lead us to our ultimate goal.
Bear in mind that all of these steps should be climbed appropriately. If you are concerned about people’s lives and eager to fight against the death penalty, you have no choice but to travel this path with different steps. Concentrating on one step (eight) does not bring any changes with regard to legal reforms in the death penalty, and violence all over the world.
Mohammad Mostafaei
Iranian human rights lawyer and
Director of Universal Tolerance Organization
Poster by: Shahrokh Heydari

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