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Death Penalty: Worldwide Abolition

Volume 764: debated on Monday 20 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made in securing the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.

My Lords, during the last Parliament, the Government worked with partners, notably the Swiss Government and experts such as the Death Penalty Project and the all-party parliamentary group, to promote global abolition. This policy was successful. In 2014, only 22 countries executed, while 140 were abolitionists. We will continue to raise death penalty cases abroad. The Diplomatic Service will make the practical and moral cases against the death penalty to retentionist countries.

My Lords, the Government’s continued commitment to the abolition of the death penalty is very welcome, but the Minister will be aware that some countries pose particular problems. Perhaps I may ask particularly about Iran, much in the news lately because of the welcome news about the signing of the deal on its nuclear programme. Is he aware that, according to Amnesty International, around 743 people were executed in Iran last year, most in secret, including juvenile offenders, drug offenders and political activists? That is probably more per head of the population than in any other country in the world. Can he give an assurance that, as UK-Iranian relations develop, Foreign Office officials will take every opportunity to demand improvements in Iran’s human rights record and that the barbarous use of the death penalty on such a grotesque scale comes to an end?

The noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, mentions quite horrific figures from Iran. He is right about pressure. I hope that the agreement reached only last week will open the door to more work that we can carry out. The recent diplomatic breakthrough may enable more dialogue, and our diplomatic staff will take advantage of any opening possible.

My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty and express appreciation for the principled stance that the Government have taken on this matter. The Minister will be aware of Lindsay Sandiford, the British grandmother, who is on death row in Indonesia for drug trafficking. What are the Government doing to ensure that vulnerable British nationals under sentence of death like Lindsay Sandiford have effective legal representation?

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentions a particular case in Indonesia and legal representation. It has been the policy of all Governments in the past not to fund legal costs for those in this position, but we will work as hard as we can both bilaterally and multilaterally to protect individuals who end up in this situation.

My Lords, the coalition Government produced the Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty 2010-2015, but that does not appear to have been succeeded by another strategy covering the years 2015 to 2020. Will that happen? Perhaps I may also ask the Minister about the case of Saudi Arabia. The Foreign Office website points out that 100 executions have taken place there so far this year and that we raise the matter on every possible occasion, bilaterally and through the European Union. When we do that, can we concentrate on the safeguards developed by the United Nations that are recommended for use in death penalty cases, in particular those regarding the ingredients of a fair trial?

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned Saudi Arabia. We frequently raise the issue of the death penalty with the Saudi authorities both bilaterally at the highest levels and through the European Union. The noble Lord also mentioned the 2010 to 2015 plan. I can tell him that we are still funding projects through the Human Rights and Democracy fund in the US, China and south-east Asia, the Middle East and north Africa. We provide training for defence lawyers in the United States and we have supported a regional organisation in the greater Caribbean area, as well as providing support for defence lawyers in the Caribbean. We also fund important work to support abolitionists. These works are ongoing.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we in the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty are grateful for the support we get for visits we pay to overseas countries? The United States has always been a particular difficulty. Is the Minister aware that as recently as 29 June, two judges in the Supreme Court said in a dissenting judgment that they were asking for a full briefing on a basic question of whether the death penalty violates the constitution? Although it was not a majority view, it was pretty well a landmark conclusion. Does the Minister agree that the time has come to push the United States a bit further?

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, is correct. The situation in America is difficult to believe, but there has been progress. Nebraska has abolished the death penalty, while Oregon and Washington State have entered a moratorium. Since 2010 we have banned drugs being exported to the United States, which was followed by the whole of the EU in 2012.

Further to what has been said about the USA, perhaps I may raise with the noble Earl a specific issue which I would ask him to raise with the US authorities and perhaps also with our EU partners. Thomas Knight was executed in Florida on 7 January 2014 for a murder he committed at the age of 23. However, he had been on death row for 39 years. There are numerous incidents of young men being held on death row for years and years when presumably they are quite different people by the time they are executed. I ask the noble Earl to raise this very serious issue to ensure that we do not have people on death row for such inordinate lengths of time, waiting for their execution.

I thank the noble Baroness for bringing that to my attention. Spending that length of time on death row is quite inhuman. I will of course raise it with officials in the department.