Like many countries, Jordan has had a moratorium on executions since 1996, but death sentences continue to be handed down, with 22 imposed in 2013. This article explores the government’s position on the death penalty and why many believe it should finally be taken out of the lawbooks. It was first published on 2 April 2014 in the Jordanian daily newspaper, Ad-Dustour, by journalist Omar Maharmeh, and won the Arabic language category of PRI’s recent competition for the best investigative journalism on the death penalty and life imprisonment.
‘I wake up every morning listening for the sound of footsteps of people coming to drive me to gallows, for fear Jordan might at any moment go back on its decision to stop implementing this punishment. I see, in my few hours of sleep each night, the nightmare of the hanging rope wrapped around my neck.’
These phrases summed up the feelings of an inmate at Swaqa Correction and Rehabilitation Center, sentenced to death in 2009 when the Greater Criminal Court decided to hang him for the crime of premeditated murder.
In a telephone call from prison, the inmate adds: ‘I see death every day. It pains me to remember the feelings of my mother and children at the moment when they were told of my sentence. I had to rewind a tape full of the pain and misery that led me to this place’.
Speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid hurting his family’s feelings, he said that he attempted to remain strong and act reassuringly when he was with them. But in reality, he said, ‘I get killed every day’.
This situation could apply to any of the more than 100 inmates sentenced to death in Jordan. In Jordan, there have been no executions since mid-2006, but the moratorium is’unofficial’, existing through government practice rather than law. The lack of a legislative basis means executions could return at any moment.
The informal moratorium has been accompanied by official reluctance to move, implicitly or explicitly, towards abolition of the death penalty. This leaves the door open for a resumption of executions, for example in the wake of a high-profile crime.
The last two people to be executed in Jordan were a Libyan and a Jordanian, killed for assassinating an American diplomat outside his home in Amman. However, that hasn’t stopped courts in the Kingdom issuing death sentences: 22 were imposed in 2013, eight of which were later reduced on appeal.
Justifications for maintaining the death penalty include that Shari’a law or local customs require it, fear that without execution people will take the law into their own hands and a belief that it deters would-be offenders. These arguments are also wheeled out by opponents of abolition whenever the issue of international standards and human rights is raised.
Abolitionists want to replace capital punishment with life imprisonment. They are doing this by reducing, as far as possible, the number of offences that attract the death penalty. Twenty-one articles in Jordanian law provide for such punishment, seven times the number mentioned in Shari’a. Islamic law only allows for the death penalty in three cases and there are strict procedural constraints which can in practice make to impossible to carry it out.
Asem Rabab’a, Director of the Adala Center for Human Rights, says that in most Islamic countries crimes punishable by death according to Shari’a constitute a tiny fraction (less than 3%) of capital offences in these countries.
According to Rabab’a, this incongruity does not interest Jordanian lawmakers. Meanwhile, the judiciary has refrained from making rulings in favour of abolition, though a number of judges are personally supportive . The Jordanian public ranges between support for execution for the most serious crimes and suspension of the death penalty for practical reasons, within a community which attaches considerable weight to the idea of revenge.
‘The difference between the supporters and opponents is limited to the justifications for retaining or repealing such punishment’, said Rabab’a. ‘So, the issue of “treatment vs. punishment” carries no weight for abolitionists. But some people believe that death is justifiable in light of the serious crimes perpetrated by some criminals.’
Former Director of the National Center for Forensic Medicine, Dr. Mu’men Al Hadidi, said: ‘Criminology and criminal correction science seeks to correct the criminal but not to put an end to him. Scientific analysis of individual offenders indicates that the majority of them were damaged by their past surroundings, upbringing and education. It is, therefore, essential to correct rather than kill these people.
Al Hadidi, who attended executions at Swaqa Correction and Rehabilitation Center, explained that the irreversibility of a death sentence means that those later found to be innocent cannot be released. Nor is this a theoretical risk: eight percent of those executed in Jordan were subsequently exonerated.
According to Al Hadidi, the role of forensic medicine in death penalty cases is limited to verification (by the Prison Director and Attorney General) of the condemned’s identity, and checking that female prisoners are not pregnant. Following execution, there is a more thorough examination to confirm the death, with checks on the cardiac, respiratory and neurological systems to verify they have ceased to function. Deaths need to be documented and corpses preserved and transported, in line with rules laid down by the Attorney General.
A former Attorney General described cases where execution should be suspended, even at the last minute. In one case, a female convict was hanged for a second time after her head slid out of the noose; after falling on the ground, she was returned to the gallows and executed for the second time. In another case in the 1990s, a prisoner was hanged again after they were heard making ‘snoring-type’ noises following execution.
Jordan’s suspension of executions did not come about through any official declaration; the country’s reluctance to support a UN General Assembly resolution calling for a global moratorium on the death penalty has been seen by human rights activists as a indicative of the government’s position.
‘Jordan has ratified most of the basic international conventions on human rights’, explained rights activist Nesrin Zreiqat. ‘In 2006, Jordan published those conventions in the Official Gazette, and international conventions have thus become part of the National Law and Regulations.’
Zreiqat added: ‘This move has contributed at the human rights level to the emergence of calls for abolition, to the extent that the government has sought to reduce gradually the 23offences which provide for the death penalty. There are new legal amendments being forwarded to the Council of Deputies for this purpose.’
‘Death is an irreversible punishment’, said Zreiqat. ‘So, because we cannot restore someone to life in case of mistakes, it would be better to impose life imprisonment instead.’
The Regional Director of Penal Reform International, Taghreed Jaber, believes that the death penalty is as cruel as homicide because it too involves deprivation of the right to life, and is an extraordinary punishment in the sense that it is applied to the most serious crimes. As not all crimes are equally serious, the death penalty would only be appropriate for the rarest and most serious. But given its harshness and exceptionality, the death penalty is inconsistent with both human dignity and freedom.
Jaber explained that death as a punishment does not deter crime: statistics reveal that the death penalty does not lead to reduction of crime rates and abolition does not lead to an increase in crime.
According to Dr Hamdi Murad, Shari’a law provides for the death penalty only in extremely limited cases. It is further constrained by requirements for standards of proof, fairness and tolerance, to the extent that it is in practice impossible to implement a Shari’a-compliant execution.
During a TV talk show on capital punishment, Murad highlighted the three offences that carry the death penalty: murder, adultery by a married person, and ‘causing corruption on earth’ i.e. terrorism.
Murad explained that homicide required strict conditions to be met before the death penalty could be imposed; Islamic lawmakers should avoid harsh punishments (such as death) where there is doubt. By the same token, they should prohibit execution if any of the parties in a blood feud is reluctant to reconcile. The system of ‘blood money’ gives the family of the victim the right to accept financial compensation in lieu of execution.
Murad notes that a large number of scholars are at odds over the issue of married adulterers. The requirements for proving adultery are so high as to make it functionally impossible to convict in accordance with Shari’a, meaning that this punishment should be de facto abolished.
Amnesty International has recently stated in a report that in 2013 1,000 executions took place worldwide (with the exception of China), a 15% increase compared to 2012. This worrying rise was attributed to a small, isolated group of countries, in particular Iran and Iraq.
Amnesty condemned the wave of executions that took place in some countries, but argued that they are on the wrong side of history and becoming ever more isolated as more nations move to outlaw the practice.
It added that only a small number of countries have carried out executions in the last year, but these killings would not undermine the overall progress made towards universal abolition.
In Amnesty’s death penalty report, Iran (with 369 confirmed executions) and Iraq (with 169 confirmed executions) were the second- and third-most prolific users of the death penalty, behind China. Information about the death penalty is considered a state secret in China, but Amnesty estimates that thousands are killed there annually.
Saudi Arabia carried out at least 79 executions in 2103, putting it fourth in the list, followed by the United States of America with 39 executions and Somalia with at least 34.
Excluding China, at least 778 executions were known to have occurred in 2013, compared to 682 in 2012. Executions took place in 22countries, one more than in 2012. Indonesia, Kuwait, Nigeria and Vietnam all resumed executions after one or more years without this punishment.
The report pointed out that despite some setbacks in 2013, the number of countries using the death penalty has declined over the past twenty years. ‘Progress towards abolition was recorded in all regions of the world.’
Several countries that had executed in 2012 did not during 2013: these included Gambia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan, where the authorities renewed the moratorium on executions. Belarus carried out no executions, meaning that Europe and Central Asia are execution-free for the first time since 2009.
About the competition
The Russian language category was won by young Belarusian journalist, Adaria Gushtyn – read her articles in English or Russian here. Her articles digging into the facts behind death penalty cases in Belarus are providing an important public record of an often secretive process. The English language category was won by Nancy Mullane for two podcasts for US radio magazine, Life of the Law, which provide compelling and unusual insights into life in California’s prisons.
This competition was held as part of PRI’s project ‘Progressive abolition of the death penalty and implementation of humane alternative sanctions’, which is funded by the European Union.
Please note that the views in this blog do not necessarily represent those of Penal Reform International.