UK government soft-pedalling over the death penalty

Amnesty sets out facts of government’s reluctance to press for an end to the death penalty in some countries

The Government has been accused of “soft-pedalling” over the death penalty and seeming to make trade more important than human rights.  The charge by Amnesty International UK’s director Kate Allen (pictured in Salisbury Cathedral last year) comes as the human rights organisation released figures showing that at least 1,634 people were executed in 2015, a rise of 54% on the year before.  Despite being the highest number Amnesty has recorded since 1989, this total does not include China, where thousands were likely to have been executed but where the death penalty is a state secret.

The figures – contained in the report Death Sentences and Executions in 2015 – show that the top five executioners in the world in 2015 were China, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the USA.

This “profoundly disturbing” surge in executions was largely fuelled by big increases in Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Amnesty International reported.  Amnesty International’s fears have been raised just hours after MPs on the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee said there is “plainly a perception” the Government is prioritising trade and security with China, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain above human rights.

Ms Allen said:

Like the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, we’re worried that the Government has started soft-pedalling over foreign countries’ use of the death penalty, preferring to prioritise trade with countries like China, Saudi Arabia or Pakistan.

Until recently the UK’s policy of seeking global abolition of capital punishment had a clear focus and strategy.  Now the death penalty’s been thrown into the pot with other concerns and it’s much harder to tell whether the Government is prioritising this life-and-death matter.

If governments in Beijing, Tehran, Islamabad and Riyadh aren’t hearing about our outrage at executions after torture and unfair trials, then the executioners are going to think they’ve got a green light to carry on killing.

We want to see the Foreign Office publishing a clear strategy for its anti-death penalty work at the earliest opportunity.”

Amnesty International’s secretary general Salil Shetty said: “Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have all put people to death at unprecedented levels, often after grossly unfair trials.”

Last year, the Foreign and Commonweatth Office’s most senior civil servant made a frank admission to MPs that human rights “is not one of our top priorities” and that the “prosperity agenda is further up the list”.

Ministers deny the issue has been downgraded but a string of trade-focused, red carpet visits to the UK by the leaders of countries with some of the worst records of rights abuses has reinforced the perception of a shift of diplomatic emphasis.  Readers of this blog will know we have been following the twists and turns of this story for some months.  We wrote to our local MP Mr John Glen last year on Saudi Arabia and the rising toll of executions by beheading or crucifixion and we received a bland reply from the FCO minister Tobias Ellwood.  Since that time more evidence has emerged of policy changes designed it seems to scale down the human rights aspects.  We noted that when George Osborne visited China to the surprise of his hosts he failed to raise the question of human rights and executions at all.  Tobias Ellwood was reported by local media as congratulating the Saudis on the progress they were making with human rights.

Human rights minister Baroness Anelay said:

I am deeply troubled by the increase in the number of reported executions in 2015, which was driven by concerning increases in Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.

The UK opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and we make our opposition well known at the highest levels to countries which continue to apply it. Our message to them is clear, the death penalty is unjust, outdated and ineffective. It also risks fuelling extremism.

Despite these concerning figures there has been progress in many countries.  It is welcome that in 2015 Fiji, the Republic of Congo, Madagascar and Suriname all abolished the death penalty.

The Foreign Office will continue to use its diplomatic network to push for progress towards the global abolition of the death penalty.

Maya Foa, of Reprieve, described the rise in executions as “extremely troubling” adding: “It is all the more disturbing, therefore, to see what the Foreign Affairs Select Committee this week described as an ‘apparent deprioritisation’ of human rights by the UK government.

Now more than ever, Britain needs to be speaking out against the grave abuses – including mass trials, torture and death sentences handed down to juveniles and political protesters – being committed by its allies.

It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the primary aim of the government is trade and business with human rights coming a poor second if at all.  This overlooks the nature of ‘soft power’ and the fact that as a nation, we could be influential in humanising world affairs.  Instead, we chose to push out the red carpet for the most frightful regimes and, as the Panama papers are revealing, allow dubious individuals to buy up large parts of London using off shore tax havens.

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Death Penalty Report published

Dramatic rise in executions in 2015: the most in one year for a quarter of a century

To read the full report click here (pdf)





The past year has seen a horrific increase in executions around the world – the most we’ve recorded in a single year since 1989, and an increase of an astonishing 54% from the year before.

A few countries are executing prisoners by the hundreds, sometimes for crimes that aren’t serious, sometimes after trials and treatment that isn’t just or fair, and always violating the individual’s right to life and right to be free from torture.

From Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan shot by firing squad for drugs charges in Indonesia to Shafqat Hussein, hanged in Pakistan for a crime he confessed to after torture, aged just 14, over 1,634 individuals were put to death by state authorities last year.

Huge rise in executions

We recorded a huge increase in the death penalty, an increase of 54% compared with 2014. This is the largest number of state executions for a quarter of a century.

The number of countries that executed people rose – from 22 in 2014 to 25 in 2015. At least six countries resumed executions: Bangladesh, Chad, India, Indonesia, Oman and South Sudan.

Countries continued to flout other aspects of international law, putting to death people with mental or intellectual disabilities, as well as those charged with non-lethal crimes. Apart from drug-related offences, people were executed for crimes such as adultery, blasphemy, corruption, kidnapping and ‘questioning the leader’s policies’.

The death penalty is always a violation of human rights. We oppose it in every case.

The main executioners

A minority of countries are committing the majority of executions. 89% of executions in 2015 took place in just three countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.


Iran continued to execute juvenile offenders like Shafqat – aged under 18 at the time of the alleged crime – in violation of international law. Authorities there sentencd juvenile offenders to death last year too.


Pakistan lifted its freeze on civilian executions in December 2014, and in the year that followed killed 326 people – the most we’ve ever recorded for that country in a single year.

An attack on a school in Peshawar prompted the government to start executing again, something it had not done since 2008. Initially, the freeze was lifted for those charged with terrorist-related offences, but in March 2015 the government resumed executions for all capital crimes, such as murder and blasphemy.

In a country where people are routinely denied the right to a fair trial, and evidence extracted through torture is used to seal convictions, hundreds of people are being sent to their deaths under the pretence of justice being served.

Saudi Arabia

Last year saw a huge surge in executions for an already prolific executioner. These figures don’t even include Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 47 people at the start of this year.

The missing executioners

But these figures exclude China, where numbers remain a state secret, yet where we believe thousands of people are executed every year. We consider China to be the world’s top executioner, although the numbers are missing from this report.

We haven’t published figures for executions in China since 2008; we’re challenging the Chinese government to reveal their own figures and demonstrate that they really are limiting their use of the death penalty – something they have claimed to be doing since the country’s highest court began reviewing all death penalty cases back in 2007.

We also don’t publish figures for North Korea, a state shrouded in secrecy.

Execution sentences in 2015

At least 1,998 people were sentenced to death in 2015 and at least 20,292 prisoners remained on death row at the end of the year.

Some hope

Four countries abolished the death penalty for all crimes – the highest number to do so in the space of one year for almost a decade.

Madagascar, Fiji, Suriname and Congo all did away with the death penalty in the national laws once and for all.

Mongolia adopted a new Criminal Code outlawing the death penalty for all crimes in December which will enter fully into law in September 2016.

There is hope even in the USA, which continued to flout international law by executing people with mental disabilities.  Pennsylvania abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2015 , bringing the total number of US states that have abolished the death penalty to 18.

We still hope for a world without the death penalty, and today half the world has abolished it for good. Add to this countries which have abolished this punishment in practice, as opposed to law, and the total comes to two-thirds of the world.

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