A call for all Arab nations to suspend the death penalty

Safaa Abdoun
7 Min Read

ALEXANDRIA: Participants at the international seminar “Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty in the Arab World, signed a declaration calling for the implementation of the United Nations’ resolution 62/149 in the Arab region.

“We are asking for the most basic of human rights and this is the right to live, said Jan Nordlander, ambassador of Sweden, at the seminar that took place at the Swedish Institute in Alexandria

The UN’s general assembly voted in favor of resolution 62/149 on Dec. 18, 2007, with the vast majority calling for a general suspension of the death penalty around the world. From the Arab region, only Algeria voted in favor of the resolution, while 17 countries voted against it.

Participants find this seminar a step towards abolishing the death penalty in the region. However, the majority agrees that it will take extensive efforts to achieve this objective.

“The death penalty in the Arab world is on the decline. However, to abolish the death penalty in the Arab world, this will need tremendous work and effort by civil society groups and by religious leaders because most of the governments claim that the abolition of the death penalty contradicts with sharia, said Adam Abdelmoula, representative of the Middle East and North Africa office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The seminar discussed the death penalty in the Arab world, in principle and in practice, both from the legislative and social perspectives.

Representatives from Arab countries reported on the ongoing effort to abolish the death penalty. They all pointed to the debate on whether capital punishment conflicts with sharia.

“It is a huge challenge, as we are working in a region where there is a lack of awareness and misunderstanding of Islamic law when it comes to the death penalty. When we start discussing the abolition of the death penalty, people automatically assume you are going against religion, said Nizam Assaf, director of the Amman Center for Human Rights Studies.

“People have to understand that our move doesn’t conflict with Islam and the Islamic jurisprudence; we are only in conflict with the laws.

“Islamic law doesn’t make the death penalty mandatory except in four cases, and even in these cases it comes as a measure of last resort and that makes it extremely exceptional and rare, said Jordanian Islamic lecturer and researcher Hamdy Mourad.

Worldwide, Senegal is the only Islamic country that has abolished the death penalty. Meanwhile, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria have not carried out the death penalty for more than 15 years but have not abolished it.

“We are trying to reduce the use of the death penalty to the level tolerated by sharia. If we achieve that, that will be a success in our program in the sense that if you reduce the death penalty from 365 cases to four cases, this is an achievement, said Tahar Boudmedra, regional director of Penal Reform International in the Middle East and North Africa.”But the ultimate achievement and our objective is abolishing the death penalty, such an inhuman punishment, he added.

The declaration also notes that there is “a dysfunction in the justice system in Arab countries, saying the way the death penalty is prescribed “leaves room for wide interpretation. As a result, the majority of cases where the death penalty is used are political cases in which people are convicted of organized crime, terrorism and threats to state security. Even in such cases, there is also a form of double standards and most of the people who receive the death penalty are of a low socioeconomic class.

“Governments want to set an example for people by using the death penalty, and their objective when they use the death penalty is to decrease crime. But studies show no difference between the crime rate in countries where the death penalty is abolished and where it is still used, said Assaf.

Participants discussed the case of Saddam Hussein and argued that if anything has been achieved from his execution, it was getting sympathy from the people for being executed on the first day of the feast.

The declaration also calls upon Arab journalists and human right activists to “fully play their role in awareness raising and combat bad customs and practice such as revenge and violence in all its forms, and promote the dissemination of a human rights culture, particularly the right to life.

Yet, there was a continued lack of consensus among civil society groups regarding the death penalty.

“Having an open a debate and breaking the taboos about this issue will eventually lead us to a consensus, said Boudmera. “Our declaration includes the areas on which we have reached an agreement and it registers that we as civil society are not happy with the fact that worldwide only this region has not abolished the death penalty, he added.

Participants agree that the seminar has been beneficial and hope it will be followed by similar events. However, it shouldn’t only be a discussion between a few intellectuals but a wider debate in which every Arab citizen will take part and express their opinion and beliefs.

“The argument has to go into the public arena so that all people can take part in this debate. And out of that debate will come a new culture that is much more in favor of abolition than it is right now, said Abdelmoula.

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