Should South Africa reinstate the death penalty?

New data from Amnesty International shows which countries were the biggest killers through the sanctioned execution of criminals in 2014, and why the practice should be abolished.

This week, over 4,000 people in Port Elizabeth marched to the Kabega Park police station, protesting the death of Eastern Cape teacher Jayde Panayiotou.

Panayiotou was allegedly abducted outside her home on 21 April, and her body was reportedly found near KwaNobuhle Township in Uitenhage the following morning.

As part of the march, protesters called for the teacher’s murderers to be brought to justice – with a cry for the reinstatement of the death penalty in South Africa.

Crowds of people chanted “Enough is Enough”, “Ons is Gatvol” and “Bring back the death penalty”.

South Africa abolished the death penalty in 1995, as it went against the country’s new-found constitution.

Between 1959 and 1989, when the last execution took place, South Africa executed almost 3,000 people by hanging, with over 1,200 in the 1980s alone.

As of 2014, 98 countries in the world, including South Africa, had abolished the death penalty by law. In total, 140 countries have abolished it in practice.

Poorly executed

According to Amnesty International, countries who execute people commonly cite the death penalty as a way to deter people from committing crime.

However, this claim has been repeatedly discredited, and there is no evidence that the death penalty is any more effective in reducing crime than imprisonment, the group said.

“The death penalty is a symptom of a culture of violence, not a solution to it,” it said.

The group added that the death penalty goes against the universal declaration of human rights, is open to abuse in skewed or failing justice systems, and will undoubtedly target the poor.

“You are more likely to be sentenced to death if you are poor or belong to a racial, ethnic, or religious minority because of discrimination in the justice system,” said Amnesty International.

“Poor and marginalised groups have less access to the legal resources needed to defend themselves.”

Who still kills for crime

Were South Africa to reinstate the death penalty, it would join 58 countries across the world that use the practice as a method of punishment.

We would join nations such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, Iraq, Sudan, Yemen, Egypt, Japan, and the USA.

The latter two countries are the only G8 nations that execute – with the USA the only country in the Americas that uses the practice.

Country Executions in 2014
China 1000+
Iran 289+
Saudi Arabia 90+
Iraq 61+
North Korea 50+
USA 35
Sudan 23+
Yemen 22+
Egypt 15+
Somalia 14+
Jordan 11
Equatorial Guinea 9
Pakistan 7
Afghanistan 6
Taiwan 5
Belarus 3+
Vietnam 3+
Japan 3
Malaysia 2+
Palestine 2+
Singapore 2

+ indicates where Amnesty International believes the figure is higher than official reports

Amnesty International recorded executions in 22 countries in 2014, the same number as in 2013. While 607 executions were carried out worldwide, the group noted this was down 22% from the previous year.

The figures do not include the number of people executed in China, however, as data on the death penalty is treated as a state secret there.

Aside from China, which is believed to have executed well over 1,000 people in 2014, Iran is the biggest killer when it comes to the death penalty.

Although 289 executions were officially reported by the country, Amnesty International estimates the figure is probably closer to 743.

The next biggest killer is Saudi Arabia, where 90 people were executed – half for non-lethal crimes.

Iraq executed over 61 people in 2014, while North Korea is understood to have executed over 50 people – though limited information means the figure could not be confirmed.

The USA executed 35 – fewer than 2013, along with a decrease in death sentences imposed.

Executions may have taken place in Libya and Syria, although none could be confirmed by Amnesty International.

“An alarming number of countries that used the death penalty in 2014 did so in response to real or perceived threats to state security and public safety posed by terrorism, crime, or internal instability,” said Amnesty International.

Methods of execution

The following methods of executions were used:

  • Beheading (Saudi Arabia)
  • Hanging (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, Singapore, Sudan)
  • Lethal injection (China, USA, Vietnam)
  • Shooting (Belarus, China, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Taiwan, UAE, Yemen).

While there were no reports of judicial executions carried out by stoning, a woman in the UAE was sentenced to death by stoning for committing “adultery”.

Public executions were carried out in Iran and Saudi Arabia.

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Should South Africa reinstate the death penalty?