The ‘ultimate price to pay’? Capital punishment around the world and debate over UK death penalty return

By Paddy von Behr

Capital punishment is a contentious issue – last week’s triple execution in Japan was followed by the US state of Georgia’s rush to kill a double murderer before its lethal injection supplies expired.

This double-header of news brought to light the stark disparity of death penalty laws worldwide.

Japan and USA are, by some distance, the world’s two most industrialised nations to practice capital punishment – others include Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

In total, 40 countries retain the death penalty to date, with 18 believed by Amnesty International to have carried out executions as recently as 2011.

China heads the list, with more than 2000 capital punishments thought to have taken place that year – despite its notoriety as home of the death penalty, USA lies fifth in the list with 43.

In fact, trends suggest there is a move, albeit painfully gradual, away from executions in America.

Last year there were 3,146 people on death row in the states – the lowest number since 1995.

Interestingly, and perhaps oddly, enough: Venezuela was the first country to abolish the death penalty, which it did in 1863.

By the start of World War Two, just seven countries had abolished it, only one of which was outside south or Central America – San Marino.

Last year Latvia, Benin, Mongolia and Madagascar took the leap, bringing the total number of nations to have done away with capital punishment to 100.

The UK formally abolished it in 1965 – in August of the previous year Gwynne Owen Evans and Peter Anthony Allen became the last men to be executed in England.

Evans was hanged in Manchester’s Strangeways prison by Harry Allen – no relation to Peter – for the murder of John Alan West.

But what are the chances of this historical moment being wiped from the record books – could we witness the return of capital punishment in the UK?

Following the high-profile murders of PCs Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes in Mottram, Paul Nuttall, Northwest MEP and deputy leader of the UK Independence Party, backed the idea.

“It is time that those who commit such heinous crimes should face the ultimate sanction against them,” he said.

“All our brave bobbies face similar risks every day. They deserve all the protection the state can provide and I believe that means the death penalty awaiting culprits.

“The same should apply to those who murder children and for serial killers,” he added.

“We must lay down a mark in the sand beyond which the ultimate price must be paid by offenders.

“People have had more than enough of soft sentencing in this country and it must be made plain that crime will not be tolerated.”

Paul Staines, of the Restore Justice campaign, sought to bring an e-petition to parliament in 2011, with the intention of re-instating the death penalty.

“The majority are in favour for bringing back the death penalty everywhere except in Parliament,” he told the BBC.

“The people want the death penalty, and politicians aren’t prepared to vote for it. That’s not right.

“What I’m trying to do is get Parliament to discuss this issue between what Parliament wants and what the people want.”

He claimed 60% of British people were in favour of capital punishment for murderers of children and police officers, but the campaign stalled dramatically, despite media attention.

The petition received 26,351 signatures – well short of the 100,000 necessary to force a debate on the subject in the House of Commons.

One year on and the Restore Justice website is now more of a relic than a working campaign tool, as interest in the cause has dissolved.

And organisations such as Amnesty International and Reprieve are constantly working to ensure Mr Staines’ proposition never bears fruit.

Clare Algar, Executive Director of Reprieve, told MM: “The death penalty is the most barbaric and cruel of punishments imaginable.

“The UK abolished the death penalty decades ago because innocent people have been and will always be executed, while it does nothing to deter crime.

“Unless we want to return to a medieval system of injustice metered out arbitrarily, re-introducing the death penalty must never be considered.”

Picture courtesy of Luis Echanove, with thanks.

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