In May 2014, in Sudan, Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death for the ‘crime’ of ridda (apostacy) and to 100 lashes for the ‘offence’ of zena (sexual immorality). The case generated international outrage among those who care about women’s rights and religious freedom. The penalty of death for behaviours that should never be criminalised caused indignation among retentionists as well as abolitionists. But the execution of women for acts deemed to be immoral is not unusual in some countries in the Middle East and Africa. This case appalled us primarily because of her status as a mother and the human rights implications for the protection of the family and the welfare of children. Mrs Ibrahim was pregnant while being held in prison with her 20-month-old son. She gave birth to her second child later in May, restrained by shackles.
Meriam’s case not only caused a global social media campaign, but it provoked an uncompromising stance from the United Nations, the European Union, foreign ministers from various governments, and the British parliament. Just a month after giving birth, the Court of Appeal in Khartoum North quashed her convictions and Miriam was released from custody to be reunited with her husband. The young family were soon on their way to the United States.
On International Women’s Day, it’s worth reflecting on the many other women around the world who are held in prisons, in sometimes dire conditions, who do not escape this cruel and inhuman treatment. They await their executioner, with little fuss made about them.
In the United States there are 59 women on death row, though only 15 have been executed since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976. Just a few weeks ago, Kelly Gissendaner made her last plea for clemency to the Georgia parole board, but few outside of this southern state will have heard about her. Linda Carty came dangerously close to execution in 2011 and still remains on death row, fighting for a retrial. She is better known to British people due to the efforts to overturn her apparently unsafe conviction made by the UK-based human rights charity, Reprieve, which works on behalf of British people imprisoned overseas. However, media reports remain few and far between and do not generate the public interest aroused by Meriam Ibrahim’s case.
As another middle-aged, British woman, without young dependents, Lindsay Sandiford similarly receives less attention. Lindsay―like the ‘Bali two’ Australians, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran―awaits imminent execution in an Indonesian jail. Sentenced for drug smuggling, they are at the mercy of an Indonesian president who has made clear that he will deny clemency appeals from those convicted for drug offences. In stark contrast to the eagerness of politicians in Europe and the United States to assist Meriam, the British government has refused to fund legal advice and representation for Lindsay Sandiford.
Elsewhere in Asia, few people outside of Japan noticed when Sachiko Eto, an alleged ‘cult leader,’ was executed in 2012 following her conviction for murder. There remain six women on death row in Japan. One of them is Hayashi Masumi, a middle-aged woman convicted of poisoning a curry served at a 1998 summer festival in Wakayama (a rather unusual case, and a possible miscarriage of justice, but unlikely to generate international media interest). In the absence of young children, women are less ‘media-friendly.’
Although there is no international norm barring the sentencing to death and execution of women in general, they have been exempted altogether from capital punishment in a few countries—mainly those associated with the former Soviet system. But they have been executed recently in Iran (at least 30 in 2013, the majority for drug trafficking), Vietnam, Afghanistan, Indonesia, and fairly frequently in China. In Saudi Arabia many women are beheaded for the types of behaviours for which Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced.
Article 6(5) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights does not protect pregnant women from being sentenced to death but it does protect them from being executed. In 1984 the Economic and Social Council Resolution (1984/50; Safeguard 3) extended this protection from execution while those that were pregnant are ‘new mothers.’ These safeguards have been almost universally accepted.
Almost all retentionist countries have introduced legislation to prohibit the execution of pregnant women. Indeed, in recent years there have been no reports of pregnant women or mothers with recently born children being executed. However, in some highly secretive jurisdictions, the picture is not entirely clear. For example, according to the International Federation for Human Rights pregnant women have reportedly undergone forced abortion in prison camps before being executed in North Korea.
The Death Penalty Worldwide website lists 33 countries that sentence pregnant women to death but delay the execution until after delivery and for varying periods while the infant is young; 22 countries always commute a death sentence that would have been imposed on a pregnant woman; six countries give the courts discretion as to whether the death sentence should be commuted immediately or after the woman’s delivery; and in 23 countries it is unclear as to whether the practice was immediate commutation to life or other long period of imprisonment or delay. Several countries―including Vietnam and Jordan―have commuted death sentences where a woman who was not pregnant when sentenced to death is later found to be pregnant.
Once a woman has given birth, some countries (such as Kuwait) automatically commute the sentence to imprisonment for life. However, not all do and the laws of several countries specify no minimum period before a woman who has given birth may be executed: the execution is merely ‘stayed.’ Others set specific periods (40 days in Indonesia and Morocco; two months in Egypt and Libya; three months in Jordan and Bahrain; two years in Yemen, the Maldives and Thailand; and three years in the Central African Republic).
It is not easy to make the case that women should be ineligible for the death penalty in countries that have not abolished. They are not vulnerable in the way that juveniles, the mentally ill, and the learning disabled are. However, there is a growing concern about the emotional plight and care of children whose parents have been sentenced to death, as demonstrated by a recent Quaker report, Lightening the Load. In 2013 the UN Human Rights Council considered whether imposing the trauma of a death sentence or execution on a parent is a violation of the rights of the child under the International Covenant. This issue is unresolved, but while there is growing concern about the collateral abuses of human rights inevitably caused by the imposition of the death penalty, we should use this day to remember all mothers around the world who live under the shadow of death, no matter how old their children are. While we do, we should not forget all the other women and men who suffer this cruel and inhuman treatment.
To learn more about the death penalty, see the fifth edition of Roger Hood and Carolyn Hoyle’s The Death Penalty: A Worldwide Perspective, published by Oxford University Press on 8 January 2015. This completely updated and substantially revised new edition of a highly praised study remains the most authoritative account of abolition and retention, and the use and administration of capital punishment in law and practice around the world.