Canada’s death penalty was discarded in 1976, some 34 years ago, but it was a slow journey to abolition. Up until 1961 all murders in Canada were punishable by hanging. It was only in 1954 that rape was eliminated as a death penalty offence. Every year between 1954 and 1963 a private member’s bill was introduced into Parliament calling for the abolition of the death penalty. Each year it failed.
The first major debate in the House of Commons was in 1966 when our lawmakers agreed to reserve the death penalty for murders involving police officers and prison guards. It took another ten years but on July 14, 1976 a free vote was held and capital punishment was repealed and a mandatory life sentence with no possibility of parole for 25 years was substituted. However, military tribunals remained able to invoke capital punishment for treason and mutiny. In December 1998 this last bastion of capital punishment was finally recinded.
There were 710 executions in Canada between 1867 and 1962, the last execution was on December 11, 1962 in Toronto, Ontario.
Canada is one of many countries that no longer utilize the death penalty, but despite world-wide pressure and the intervention of Amnesty International, the twenty-first century is still marked by this barbaric practice.
It is reported that 58 countries still include capital punishment in their criminal laws and over 60% of the world’s population lives in death penalty countries. The most notorious death penalty countries include China, who refuses to disclose statistics, but was estimated to have executed 5000 offenders in 2009. Iran comes next with at least 388 death penalty cases in 2009; Iraq with at least 120 state-ordered killings; Saudi Arabia at 69 and finally, the United States at 52 executions in 2009.
Some countries also employ the death penalty for drug-related offences including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Brunei, Vietnam, Thailand, Pakistan and China.
In China, Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and the United States, offenders who were juveniles at the time they committed their capital crime have been executed. Japan’s death row now houses three prisoners who committed their crimes while under the age of 20, which is the age of majority in Japan.
One of the most notorious juvenile death penalty cases occurred in Iran in 2005 where two boys age 14 and 16 at the time of their arrests, were executed for the rape of a 13 year-old boy, despite allegations that all three boys were engaged in consensual homosexual acts. Human rights groups throughout the world were outraged and some claimed that the boys were killed because they were gay and the rape allegation was a cover-up.
China still remains the worst offender of human rights. Recently, a proposed change in the death penalty laws has been the subject of heated debate. A committee of the National People’s Congress is discussing the removal of 13 crimes from the list of 68 crimes punishable by death, including crimes of grave robbery, panda smuggling, tax fraud, and theft of fossils. Critics, however, are not impressed because these offences rarely result in execution and other minor crimes remain on the capital penalty books including accepting bribes, making fake medicine and damaging public property.
As with all highly-charged moral and legal issues, the topic engenders fierce debate between those who are pro and con.
A review of commentary illustrates the tension between opposing camps:
“Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders.” Albert Camus, French philosopher
“To take a life when a life has been lost is revenge, not justice.” Desmond Tutu, Activist and Cleric
“Capital punishment, Those without the capital get the punishment.” John Spinkelink, Executed in Florida, 1979
“I personally have always voted for the death penalty because I believe that people who go out prepared to take the lives of other people forfeit their own right to live…” Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom
“I believe there are some crimes-mass murder, the rape and murder of a child, so heinous that the community is justified in expressing the full measure of its outrage by meting out the ultimate punishment.” Barack Obama, President of the United States
Lawdiva aka Georgialee Lang