Last year’s record on the death penalty is mixed: executions declined globally from 2013 to 2014, in a sign that public opposition continued to build around the world against capital punishment, while the few countries that continue to impose the death penalty handed down more such sentences.
But last year saw an unequivocal rise in the use of the death penalty for crimes committed by children, and one country, Iran, accounts for that increase.
This picture emerges from Amnesty International’s annual survey of the death penalty released today, the most reliable source of information on executions and death sentences worldwide. International law flatly prohibits the death penalty for crimes committed under the age of 18.
Iran is almost certainly the world leader in executing juvenile offenders, putting to death 14 in 2014 and as many as 77 in the past 10 years. Iran also continued to impose new death sentences on child offenders last year. In total, at least 160 juvenile offenders are awaiting execution in the country, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon reported in February.
Elsewhere, death sentences were handed down last year against child offenders in Egypt and Sri Lanka. And others remained under sentence of death – on death row metaphorically, if not necessarily physically – in Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
That appears to be more death sentences imposed and more actual executions of child offenders in more countries than we’ve seen in a while. In 2013, three juvenile offenders were executed in Saudi Arabia, with others possibly carried out in Iran and Yemen. Five countries that year had child offenders awaiting execution.
For 2012, Amnesty International recorded two executions of juvenile offenders, both in Yemen. In 2011, Iran executed at least three and as many as seven child offenders; no other country was known to have carried out such executions that year. And in 2010, the only confirmed execution of a juvenile offender was in Iran.
To make matters worse, just last month, Pakistan executed Muhammad Afzal, who was 16 years old when sentenced to death, and its courts approved the death sentence of Shafqat Hussain, said to be 14 or 15 years old when sentenced in 2004. (The Interior Ministry stayed his execution in January, just before he was scheduled to be put to death.) In February this year Iran set an execution date for Saman Nasim, arrested at age 17 on the vague offense of “enmity against God,” although authorities have not confirmed whether the sentence was carried out.
The increase in executions of child offenders is in sharp contrast to the decline in the use of the death penalty overall. Worldwide, there were nearly 22 percent fewer executions in 2014 than in 2013. Half the world’s countries have now completely abolished the death penalty.
And the number of countries that impose the death penalty for crimes committed in childhood remains in the single digits – eight, counting all countries that were known to have juvenile offenders on death row last year.
The outlook is good, then, for the death penalty’s eventual global abolition – states that still execute are simply on the wrong side of history, and they are increasingly realizing it.
But the recent uptick in the use of the juvenile death penalty is cause for alarm. It’s time to put an end, once and for all, to the egregious practice of executing those who commit crimes as children.
Michael Garcia Bochenek is senior counsel to the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch, focusing on juvenile justice and refugee and migrant children. He has researched and reported on criminal and juvenile justice systems and prison conditions, the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons, the exploitation of migrant workers and other labour rights issues, the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons, and rights violations in armed conflict, including the use of children as soldiers. From December 2006 to February 2015, he was director of policy and then director of law and policy for Amnesty International’s secretariat in London, where he oversaw AI’s strategic litigation, among other responsibilities. Earlier, he worked as counsel, senior researcher, and then deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Children’s Rights Division in New York, directed a non-profit immigration legal services office in Washington State’s Yakima Valley, and was the Leonard Sandler Fellow with Human Rights Watch’s Americas Division in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Michigan State University and the Columbia University School of Law. In addition to English, he speaks Spanish and Portuguese.
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