Ethiopia’s preferred method of execution of those condemned to death is shooting. In the past 26 years, since the Revolutionary Democrats took over from the Marxist military junta, Dergue, two people have been shot to death. The figure, considering the number of years, and the record of other countries such as China, may seem insignificant. But, last year, two individuals were freshly sentenced to death.
Although the exact number of people currently under the shadow of death is hard to ascertain, it is estimated that there were about 120 people on death row at least up until 2013, according to the Cornel Centre on the Death Penalty Worldwide. Recent data lacking, this number is a fraction of the 111,050 total prison population in Ethiopia accounted in 2012, including the 15pc pretrial detainees, housed in 120 facilities under the administrations of regional states and six federal prisons, data from International Centre for Prison Studies shows.
Apparently, Ethiopia will pass next Tuesday unmarked, for its government does not acknowledge the date or the rationale behind it. October 10, 2017, will mark the annual World Day Against the Death Penalty. The 15th of its kind, it is an initiative by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, a non-governmental body dedicated to abolishing capital punishment currently exercised in over 50 countries around the world, including Ethiopia.
In the past year, over 1,000 people were executed, Amnesty International, a bulwark of human rights affairs, estimated. These inmates were hanged, beheaded, shot or injected with a lethal dose by their respective states, in most cases, after a due process of law.
The International Covenant on Civil & Political Right (ICCPR), which recognises the right of every person to life, suggests the abolishment of the death penalty but does not require signatories to do so. Nonetheless, a separate agreement, Second Optional Protocol, was created in 1989, requiring signatories to abolish the death penalty, for both ordinary crimes and major offences, although there is an article that allows execution for certain crimes in times of war.
Ethiopia, despite signing the Covenant in 1993, never became a party to the Protocol. In fact, notwithstanding the long respite on executions, its diplomats have voted against all the United Nations’ (UN) resolutions for a global moratorium on the death penalty, held every one or two years since 2007.
There are two significant excuses for keeping capital punishment around, forwarded by authorities who can affect positive changes and the general public from which they are chosen. The first is that it would deter crime. In the most general of terms, the public holds the view that the severity of the death penalty would discourage people from committing crimes, especially the gruesome ones such as manslaughter.
But crimes do occur, and once they do, the death penalty is presumed to serve a further purpose – punishment. Depending on the type of the offence, the death penalty is the maximum form of punishment the state can impose. But never mind that one rationale contradicts the other – for if the death penalty is used to punish, then it apparently is not deterring crime – but both are wrong on their terms. Studies have shown that there is, in fact, no correlation between capital punishment and the level of murder rates (for which the sentence is mostly doled out).
Take Germany, a member of the European Union that has long rescinded capital punishment. The homicide rate, amongst 100,000 people, stood at less than one, according to UN Office on Drugs & Crime’s International Homicide Statistics. It is a different story for Nigeria, whose homicide rate stood at around 10 people for the same sample group, despite a death sentence being a legal penalty in the Western African nation, which executed three people just last year.
It is important to remember that repealing the death penalty by itself does not forestall crime. China, which has executed more people than all the other countries combined in 2016, has a lower homicide rate than Germany. Criminality, instead, is closely linked to poverty and an unequal distribution of wealth. Lack of employment opportunities is also a weighty setback. Controlling these problems can bring crime rates down. Having a social safety net does not hurt either, as evidenced by Nordic countries that are routinely ranked as one of the safest places on earth.
For reluctant Ethiopia, the principal reason for leaving the death penalty codified, despite the de facto moratoria on executions, is how the criminal code is viewed. It aims at “preserving peace and security”, with its primary purpose being the prevention of crimes. And this is true. Although the death penalty does not keep criminals at bay, safeguarding society against volatile individuals – by creating a barrier, which is prison – does guarantee safety.
But, the Criminal Code revised in 2004 states that should prevention of crime be ineffective, the law must provide “for the punishment of criminals”.
The death penalty, in this case, is the harshest form of punishment reserved for those that have committed grave crimes and are seen as exceptionally dangerous to the society. However, the existence of such a sentencing presents a distorted view of the justice system. It tries to confer ultimate responsibility for wrongdoing on a single person without ever taking into consideration the factors that led the convicted to commit crimes deserving of capital punishment.
Criminality is a psychological failing thrust upon one by either parents or the environment. When a country’s national murder rate increases, it does not mean that there are a few bad apples, but that society has created a milieu that has given rise to those bad apples. It is a perfect example of a government pointing a finger, instead of looking inward.
Capital punishment is also interlinked with poverty. At the very least, defendants may lack the resource to defend themselves in a court of law. There are also cases where political motives play a hand if the only two executions in the past 26 years – given to individuals convicted of assassinating high-ranking government or military officials – are anything to go by.
There seems to be some goodwill on the government’s side. There is a degree of reluctance in actually committing the executions. Still, the fact that sentencing continues, but is rarely carried out, has left death row inmates to spend the rest of their lives in a precarious situation between life and death. It is a state of torture to the mind on its own.
It is crucial that prisons do not exist to punish but to deter and, if possible, rehabilitate. The death penalty goes against either ideal. All laws should show that the state cares even for its worst inhabitants. The Criminal Code’s provision which specifies that executions shall be carried out without “cruelties, mutilations, or other physical sufferings” always rings hollow in the face of a human being getting shot.
It is hard to hear the case for the continued codification of capital punishment in Ethiopia. Its proponents are mute if they ever exist behind the bureaucratic veil. To the least, it is about time for Ethiopia to start the debate on the subject. It may have the possibilities of persuading its leaders to become a signatory of the Covenant’s Second Optional Protocol. The sentencing remains the antithesis of the right to life, which should not be impinged upon even by the state.
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