By Zeinab Mohammed Salih
An increased number of sub-Saharan African nations abolish the death penalty, says Amnesty International.
Sub-Saharan African countries made positive steps in 2017 to end the death penalty, leading a global trend of fewer executions compared to previous years, an international rights group says.
Guinea became the 20th country in sub-Saharan Africa to abolish the death penalty, while other nearby countries have either written or proposed legislation to repeal the punishment, London-based Amnesty International announced in a news release on Thursday that details its report, “Death Sentences and Executions 2017.”
Sub-Saharan countries reported two executions in 2017, one each in South Sudan and Somalia, the group said. The region made the most progress of any area in the world in 2017, said Oluwatosin Popoola, Amnesty International’s adviser on the death penalty.
“The progress in sub-Saharan Africa reinforced its position as a beacon of hope for abolition,” added Amnesty International’s Secretary General Salil Shetty in a prepared statement. “The leadership of countries in this region gives fresh hope that the abolition of the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is within reach.”
North Africa and the Middle East remained last year as regions with the highest number of death penalty sentences handed down for drug-related offenses. Additionally, 15 countries in the world went against the international law by implementing death sentences or executing people for drug-related offenses, according to the report.
The number of executions worldwide in 2017 was 993 in 23 countries, according to the group. That figure compares to 1,032 in 2016 and 1,634 in 2015 – the highest number since 1989. More than half of the executions in 2017 – 507 – occurred in Iran. Other countries with high numbers of confirmed executions included Saudi Arabia (146), Iraq (125) and Pakistan (60). China is believed to be the world’s top executioner, Amnesty said, but confirmation of executions remains confidential from the public.
There are 21,919 people on death row worldwide, Amnesty International says.
Important steps to reduce the death penalty were taken by countries known globally as strong supporters of the act, according to Amnesty. Iran recorded a decline by 11 percent and drug-related executions by 4 percent in 2017, according to the report. Malaysia amended its anti-drug laws, with the introduction of sentencing discretion in drug trafficking cases. These changes will likely result in a reduction in the number of death sentences imposed in both countries in the future, says Amnesty.
One reason sub-Saharan countries made progress in abolishing the death penalty is because some European nations have tied aid packages to ending executions, said Andrew Novak, an adjunct professor of criminology, law, and society at George Mason University in Virginia.
“That’s a powerful stick for some countries,” Novak said, adding that personal experiences by Africans have also influenced the direction to curb or end the death penalty. For example, he said, Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa was imprisoned on death row during the country’s colonial era, when it was called Rhodesia, notes Novak. Mnangagwa is now a vocal opponent of the death penalty.
The decline of the death penalty in sub-Saharan Africa follows the global trend of the decline of the use of the practice around the world.
“Even, for instance, in the United States, the death penalty is used far less frequently than it used to be and Iran just reformed its drugs law, and sub-Saharan Africa fits newly in the global trends I think,” says Novak, the George Mason professor.
Actual executions are extremely rare in sub-Saharan Africa except for in Sudan and Somalia, according to Novak. Botswana executed one person in 2017, however, “quite a few countries in sub-Saharan Africa have a lot of people on death row,” he said. And while governments may commute the sentences, many prisoners suffer in African prisons not knowing their fate.
“With governments in the region continuing to take steps to reduce and repeal the death penalty well into 2018, the isolation of the world’s remaining executing countries could not be starker,” the Amnesty report said.
Of the 29 countries in sub-Saharan Africa that still have not banned death penalty, 15 of them have not used the practice in the past 10 years, according to the report. Botswana and Sudan have reportedly resumed executions this year, Amnesty said.