Tim Hancock: A glimpse inside the sordid world of the execution chamber


Saddam Hussein's rule of Iraq was synonymous with acts of abuse and cruelty. Yet people have - quite understandably - been appalled by the footage of his execution, footage shot by mobile phone and contrasting sharply with the more sanitised official publicity. Our revulsion stemmed less from sympathy with Saddam than from the degradation of capital punishment. These pictures were of a man being killed in the name of justice - but with justice turned into a circus.

Welcome to the sordid world of the execution chamber, brought to you by the YouTube Generation. There was nothing unique about the pictures from Iraq: executing people is a dirty, sordid business. ItÕs why some governments frequently do it in secret, at dawn or during holidays when the public and the international community arenÕt paying attention. Japan, for instance, executed four people on Christmas day.

Other governments, of course, turn the execution into a gruesome public spectacle. In Iran people have been strung up on cranes; in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the public were told to attend public killings at sports stadiums.

Yet whether the execution is in secret or in public it is always cruel, always inhumane, always wrong. ThatÕs why Amnesty International and countless others always oppose it.

The finer points of putting people into this antechamber of death are excruciating. In Saudi Arabia people have been taken out of their cells not knowing whether they were going out for exercise or to face public decapitation. In the USA prisoners have been strapped down in the execution chamber and have had the lethal injection catheter inserted in their vein, only to hear that their execution had been postponed following a last-minute appeal.

A country that allows the death penalty opens the door to precisely this kind of suffering. And the suffering continues right until the last minute. In December last year, Angel Nieves Diaz, was grimacing with pain and still moving more than 20 minutes after the first lethal injections at the Florida state prison. Years earlier, witnesses to an execution by electric chair, again in Florida, had been appalled when blood gushed through the mask worn by the condemned man as the current was turned on.

Death penalty advocates argue that executions are a deterrent to other would-be offenders. Hardly an effective argument in Iraq, of course, where the government is combating suicide bombers. But it holds little more water elsewhere. UN studies have found no proof that executions have a deterrent effect; US states with the death penalty tend to have higher murder rates than those without.

Research shows that violent crime including murder actually goes up after highly publicised executions in the US. People who study the effects of executions on the public consciousness believe that violence only breeds more violence. The dubious 'example' of state-sanctioned killing appears to be one that leads to a lowering of the threshold of general respect for life.

Others argue that the death penalty is 'popular'. This is disputable in itself, as responses are often more muted when people are offered an alternative such as life imprisonment. And the clamour for blood and revenge should never form the basis of a dispassionate system of justice.

Yet one upshot of the gruesome mobile footage that has been circulated this week may be a drop in the 'popularity' of the death penalty. The general response to seeing actual pictures of an execution is one of revulsion. And perhaps by giving us a glimpse into the sordid world of the death chamber, these pictures might make people realise how abhorrent executions - all executions - really are.

Tim Hancock is Amnesty International UK campaign Director

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