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

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Employment Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - Senior Employment Solici...

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Opponents of Israel's military operation in Gaza are the real enemies of Middle Eastern peace

Gabriel Sassoon
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

Government hails latest GDP figures, but there is still room for scepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Evan Davis: The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing to take over at Newsnight

The BBC’s wolf in sheep’s clothing

What will Evan Davis be like on Newsnight?
Finding the names for America’s shame: What happens to the immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert?

Finding the names for America’s shame

The immigrants crossing the US-Mexico border without documents who never make it past the Arizona desert
Inside a church for Born Again Christians: Speaking to God in a Manchester multiplex

Inside a church for Born Again Christians

As Britain's Anglican church struggles to establish its modern identity, one branch of Christianity is booming
Rihanna, Kim Kardashian and me: How Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Olivier Rousteing is revitalising the house of Balmain

Parisian couturier Pierre Balmain made his name dressing the mid-century jet set. Today, Olivier Rousteing – heir to the house Pierre built – is celebrating their 21st-century equivalents. The result? Nothing short of Balmania
Cancer, cardiac arrest, HIV and homelessness - and he's only 39

Incredible survival story of David Tovey

Tovey went from cooking for the Queen to rifling through bins for his supper. His is a startling story of endurance against the odds – and of a social safety net failing at every turn
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little