August 30, 2002

In Bad Company — Death-Penalty Nations Marked by Extremism

By Andrew Reding

African American and rights groups are calling on President Bush to condemn the decision of an Islamic court in Nigeria to affirm a death sentence by stoning for a woman convicted of adultery. But the president is in an awkward position, having recently ignored requests from 17 foreign governments — including a direct appeal from his friend the president of Mexico — to ask the state of Texas to suspend the execution of a Mexican citizen.

Together, the two incidents underscore the extent to which the United States and radical Islam have become strange bedfellows in resisting the global tide toward abolition of the death penalty. The presence of other strange bedfellows — communist and authoritarian regimes — deepens the question.

Why would George Bush line up with the likes of Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in defending the death penalty?

A look at the global pattern of capital punishment points to a disquieting answer.

With few exceptions, the nations that have abolished capital punishment or discontinued its use are secular democracies. They include every nation in Europe except Belarus, and every country in Latin America

except Cuba and Guatemala. Among the other death penalty abolitionists are Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and the Republic of South Africa. Newly democratic Russia has suspended executions, and pledged to abolish the death penalty.

Those who retain the death penalty fall into four slots.

The first is the entire Islamic world, with the exception of Turkey, which has a secular democracy, and the former Soviet Republics of Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan.

The second is India, the world’s second most populous country, whose government is in the hands of Hindu fundamentalists.

The third is what remains of the communist world: China, North Korea, Vietnam, Laos and Cuba.

The fourth is a grab bag of authoritarian governments, including Guatemala, Belarus, Burma and Zimbabwe.

What these four have in common is one or more of the following: religious fundamentalism, communist ideology or despotism. Clearly the latter two have no relevance to the United States.

But the distribution of the death penalty inside the United States clearly points to the influence of religious fundamentalism, in this case of the Christian variety.

Capital punishment has been abolished in 11 states, covering the Northeast and upper Midwest, plus Alaska, Hawaii, West Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico — all places where the religious right is weak. In two more states — Illinois and Maryland — it has been suspended.

In the remaining 37 states, the death penalty is still in effect. But nowhere is enthusiasm greater than in the southern Bible Belt, the crescent extending from Virginia to Florida to Texas to Missouri, and in Mormon Utah. Almost nine out of 10 executions occur in that region.

Underlying religious fundamentalism in all its forms is a sense of holy righteousness. There is a struggle underway between forces of “good” and ”evil,” with the Almighty — whether called God or Allah — on the side of the righteous. Those tainted as evil are dehumanized, making it easier to forfeit their right to life.

That seemed to be the atmosphere in Texas recently, where authorities executed Mexican citizen Javier Suarez Medina without informing him of his right under the Vienna Convention to seek legal support from his government.

Last May, it executed Napoleon Beazly, an African American who was a minor at the time he committed his crime. Beazly was the 10th child offender to be executed in the United States since 1995. During the same period, only seven child offenders were executed by all other countries combined: three in Iran, two in Pakistan, one in Nigeria, and one in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The sentencing of a Nigerian woman to death by stoning is an outrage, and should be universally condemned. But until the United States joins the majority of non-totalitarian nations in abolishing the death penalty, any moral outrage President Bush musters in the face of capital punishment will ring hollow.

Reding ( is a senior fellow with the World Policy Institute in New York.

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