I don’t know if I deserve to live, but I do know that I don’t deserve to die, for everything and everyone around me, for the future, and for others that might be in the same predicament as I am in now.”
So wrote Pannir Selvam Pranthaman on his 32nd birthday, in a letter published by news website Malaysiakini on July 31, as he languished in a cell in Singapore’s Changi prison.
Convicted of smuggling 50 grams of cocaine, Pannir Selvam is one of at least 10 people the Singapore government is preparing to execute, with the inmates’ advocates fearing an imminent “bloodbath”.
Meanwhile, the United States government is gearing up to resume executions at a federal level for the first time in 16 years, with Attorney-General William Barr directing five inmates be put to death by lethal injection.
News of the planned killings, slated for December and January, has deepened the rift between US President Donald Trump, a staunch death penalty supporter, and Democratic politicians, who mostly oppose it.
And Sri Lanka has hired two hangmen in a bid to reboot its death penalty after a 43-year moratorium, as part of a war against drugs.
With strongmen on the rise around the world, and many countries moving to shore up their law-and-order regimes, is the death penalty making a comeback?
Which countries use the death penalty and which don’t?
Just over half the countries in the world – 106 – no longer had the death penalty by 2018, according to Amnesty International.
Another 28 have the death penalty on the books but have not executed anyone for at least the past 10 years, including Russia, South Korea and Papua New Guinea. Eight more, including Brazil and Israel, execute people only for “exceptional” crimes such as those committed under military law.
This leaves 56 countries who execute criminals.
Not including in China, more than 600 people were put to death in 2018. The highest number of executions was in China, although its actual rates of execution are a state secret. Amnesty International estimates thousands of people are executed there each year.
The next most enthusiastic practitioners were Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam, which killed more than 85 people in 2018, more than any other country in South-east Asia, and which has more than 600 people on death row.
The United States also regularly ranks in the top five. This year so far, 10 men have been executed across five states.
Executions slowly increased annually from 2009 until 2015, when they soared from at least 1061 to 1634, according to Amnesty International. A big contributor was Pakistan lifting its moratorium on the death penalty following a terrorist attack on a school, and executing 326 people in that year alone. The numbers dropped again in 2016 and have been declining since, with 2018 recording the smallest number of estimated executions in the past 10 years.
North Korea is another unknown quantity. Reports of executions abound, although, occasionally at least, the dead come back to life. In May 2018, media worldwide reported that a high-profile government negotiator had been executed over the failure of talks between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump. However, days later, a South Korean legislator stated that the official was still alive and North Korean media published a photo of him standing beside Kim Jong-un.
What are the methods used?
Hanging was the most common in 2018, deployed in countries including Afghanistan, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Sudan and Singapore, where Melbourne man Nguyen Tuong Van was put to death for drug trafficking in 2005.
Shooting was the next most popular, used in countries including Belarus, China, Somalia, Yemen and Taiwan. Indonesia uses firing squads, as Australians witnessed with the death of drug traffickers Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan in 2015.
After that comes lethal injection, also used in China as well as Thailand and Vietnam and favoured by the United States, where its use has been mired in controversy.
In 2011, a drug used in executions stopped being made in the US, and its import was blocked by the country’s food and drug authority. Some states tried to obtain it illegally while others tried other drugs.
Amid a slew of lethal injection executions that critics said were botched, inmates sued states, putting executions in some places on hold for years. One inmate was granted execution by electric chair in November.
Beheading, sometimes publicly, is the main method in Saudi Arabia.
Amnesty International received two reports of women being sentenced to death by stoning for adultery in Iran but was not able to independently verify them.
Where is the death penalty being used more?
Killings in Singapore have spiked, from two inmates in 2014 to 13 last year, 11 of them for drug trafficking.
In Sri Lanka, no one has been executed for 43 years but in February, the government advertised for hangmen with “excellent moral character” after President Maithripala Sirisena signalled his determination to step up the war on drugs. The country’s last hangman, who was never pressed into service, quit in 2014.
Two new hangmen were hired in June, as Sirisena signed death warrants for four drug offenders. But the Supreme Court, which has banned any executions until October 30, is considering whether death by hanging breaches the country’s constitution by being a “cruel and degrading punishment”.
In Egypt, a handful of people were executed in the six years before 2014, when Abdel Fattah al-Sisi took power. But, between 2014 and 2018, at least 159 people were put to death, part of a broader crackdown against Islamists and supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. Reuters reported an increase in the use of military courts. Sisi is a former general.
And last year Thailand carried out its first execution since 2009 and has an estimated 551 people facing the death penalty.
Where is the death penalty being wound down?
Iran has killed fewer people lately. In 2015, it executed at least 977 people and in 2017 it executed more than 500, but after it removed the death penalty for some drug-related crimes the numbers halved to an estimated 253 in 2018.
Malaysia suspended the executions of inmates on death row in October but backtracked in March, saying death would no longer be a mandatory penalty for some offences but would instead be left to judges to impose.
What crimes attract the death penalty?
Next to murder, drug offences are the most common crime punishable by death. People were executed for drug-related crimes in China, Iran, Singapore and Saudi Arabia last year, and were sentenced in a host of countries including Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kuwait, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam.
Someone can be sentenced to death for economic crimes, including corruption, in China, Iran and Vietnam, and for kidnapping in Iran and Iraq. In Saudi Arabia, torture and rape are also punishable by death.
Various forms of treason and crimes against the state are punishable by death in China, Iran, Lebanon, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and under the Palestinian Authority (with most executions taking place in the Hamas-administered Gaza Strip).
Last year, India expanded the scope of its death penalty to include rape of girls under 12 years old.
Where does the death sentence exist, unofficially?
In a small handful of countries, the crime of blasphemy is punishable by death either by law or in practice.
In Pakistan, the case of Asia Bibi made headlines when the Christian mother of five was sentenced to death by hanging in 2010 over a dispute with some Muslim women over a glass of water, during which she was accused of making derogatory remarks against the prophet Muhammad. In October, the country’s Supreme Court acquitted her on appeal.
While this means that no one charged with blasphemy has been put to death in Pakistan, many have been murdered before their trial or after their release.
In the Philippines, the death penalty was suspended in 2006 but under President Rodrigo Duterte extrajudicial killings have been rampant.
Duterte was swept into power in 2016 after campaigning hard against drug trafficking, threatening to personally kill drug dealers and urging citizens to do the same.
The official death toll of his war on drugs is more than 5500, according to the government, but the Philippines Human Rights Commission fears as many as 27,000 people have been killed.
Duterte is now calling on the government to reinstate the death penalty for drug traffickers, with the matter being debated by the Philippines parliament.
What’s next in Singapore?
The Singaporean government does not announce executions before they happen. Executions are usually carried out at 6am on Fridays, says a Singapore writer, when most of the country is still asleep.
The fate of Pannir Selvam Pranthaman and the other inmates on death row in Changi prison remains to be seen but he is not giving up hope: “I am humbly requesting to everyone who reads this to save my life and give me a second chance.” – Sydney Morning Herald, 2/8/2019