The global movement to kill the death penalty

By Salil Shetty, Secretary-General of Amnesty International

Last March, when Andrei Zhuk’s mother brought one of her usual food parcels to the prison in Minsk, she was turned away. Her son ‘had been moved’, officials told her. She should not come looking for him anymore, they said, but should instead wait for notification from the court.

Three days later, she was informed by prison staff that her son and another man, Vasily Yuzepchuk, cell mates on death row for separate murders, had been shot. Officials refused to return Andrei’s body or belongings, or even to say where he had been buried. She was shocked. Her husband suffered a heart attack upon hearing the news.

The executions were the first in Belarus – the last executioner in Europe and the former Soviet Union – in more than a year. They stood in stark, disturbing contrast to the rising tide of world opinion that has seen a growing list of countries abolishing the death penalty in either law or practice.

But while an overwhelming majority of countries around the world have stopped executing, some, like Belarus, defiantly resist. They claim popular mandates, crime deterrence or religious, cultural or political principles as justifications. But whatever their reasoning, they account for thousands of deaths each year involving this most cruel and inhumane punishment.

In 1977, when Amnesty International began its global campaign against the death penalty, it had been abolished by only 16 countries. Now, as the organization’s annual report Death Sentences and Executions 2010 shows, nearly a hundred countries have stopped using it for all crimes, with 139 ending it in law or practice. And there are other encouraging milestones.

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