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Death penalty and transparency – what's to hide?

26 October 2017

In April 2006, Oteng Modisane Ping was executed in Botswana. Neither his family members nor his lawyer had been officially informed of the date and time of his execution. Instead, they heard the news on the radio, after the execution was carried out in complete secrecy.

Ping's mother had tried to visit her son in prison the day before his execution. Prison officials advised her to come back a couple of days later, while they were perfectly aware her son was due to be hanged the following day. Following his execution, Mr. Ping's family did not have access to his body, they were not afforded an opportunity to ensure that he received a decent burial and they did not have the opportunity to visit his grave. 

Tchérina Jerolon, Africa Desk Deputy Director of the International Federation for Human Rights (Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l'homme; FIDH), shared Ping's story at a panel discussion hosted by the UN Human Rights Office. The event entitled "Death Penalty and Transparency – What's to Hide?" was to mark the World Day Against the Death Penaltyat the UN Headquarters in New York.

While opening the event, UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, stressed that "the death penalty has no place in the 21st century."

"Even with meticulous respect for fair trials, there will always be a risk of miscarriage of justice. This is an unacceptably high price," he said

Discussions focused on three aspects of transparency. Some governments, panelists pointed out, refuse to disclose data and enforce an elaborate system of secrecy to hide who is on death row, and classify information on the death penalty as a state secret, making its release an act of treason.

Participants also highlighted the lack of transparency for the families of those on death row, who sometimes do not know about the whereabouts and the conditions of incarceration of their loved ones.

Further, the lack of transparency in the sharing of evidence with defense lawyers limits their ability to provide an effective defence.

James G. Connell III, the attorney currently representing 9/11 suspect, Ammar al Baluchi, held in the United States Military Commissions at Guantanamo Bay, said that "despite the consistent request of the Special Rapporteur on Torture and others, the United States has refused any independent inspection of its prisons in Guantanamo."

"These military commissions are held on a secure military base intentionally located on Cuban soil rather than on US soil in an effort to deny these men the protections of the due process of law including the right to a public trial," Connell said.

Amnesty International's Senior Director for Law and Policy, Tawanda Mutasah, reported having seen situations where sometimes the lack of transparency suggested that States had "something to hide."

"Transparency around executions is the only way that we can prevent the cruel and inhumane treatment that already is built into the idea of the death penalty itself," Mutasah added. "It is not possible to meet the standards of international law without transparency. So not only would it help, but it is central and critical."

In certain countries of Southeast Asia, "information on imminent executions or executions that have already taken place is not publicly available," pointed out the UN Human Rights Office's representative for the region, Cynthia Veliko.

For Tchérina Jerolon, the lack of transparency reveals authorities' lack of willingness to create space for an informed public debate on the death penalty. It also allows States to own the death penalty process to the exclusion of everyone else, including prisoner's relatives, legal representatives, but also the general public.

"In some instances, it prevents States from admitting their discriminatory application of the death penalty against the poorest, or against a certain community or minority group," Jerolon added.

In September, a Global Alliance of Member States and NGOs issued a declaration to end the trade in tools of torture and capital punishment, moving a step closer to abolish secret executions. The UN Human Rights Office will support this initiative. 

26 October 2017