The experience acquired through World Congresses since 2001 in terms of debating, networking and cooperation served Middle Eastern and North African abolitionists last October.

The first Regional Congress Against the Death Penalty took place between 18-20 October 2012 in the Moroccan capital, in a region that was simmering with change. From the Arab Spring to the war in Syria and the wave of executions in Iraq, the contrasting death penalty situations across the Middle East and North Africa swung between wild hope and stark regression. This led ECPM to translate the World Congress Against the Death Penalty model to Rabat.

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Efforts by local activists to organize through national and regional coalitions were an incentive, as was the welcome extended by the Moroccan authorities. The country is one of the region’s most advanced in reducing the use of the death penalty.

International law

The simultaneous discussion of a new resolution for a universal moratorium on executions at the United Nations General Assembly offered a link to international law, which was discussed at the Congress’s first plenary session.

“In 2012, four Arab and Muslim countries switched from opposing the resolution to abstention,” Canadian scholar William Schabas remarked.

The Algerian lawyer and former minister Mohamed Bedjaoui added that post-revolution Tunisia was adopting international human rights treaties at an accelerated pace. Not only were they considering adhesion to the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Politicial Rights, which abolishes the death penalty – he observed that “Tunisia is also the only Arab country that has adhered to the Rome Statute, and that is more significant than the Second Protocol”. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court does not recognize the death penalty, even for crimes against humanity.

Islamic law

As most of the region’s inhabitants believe that the laws of God are higher than those of men, the Congress dedicated two debates to religious approaches of the death penalty.

Dr Mohamed Al Habash, a Syrian expert on sharia, developed thirteen arguments to oppose capital punishment under Islamic law. Although the law of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”) exists in theory in the Koran, he explained that the scriptures include many devices to ensure it is never implemented. For example, “the word ‘execution’ is never mentioned in the Koran because it is inappropriate,” as only God has the power to take life. Dr Al Habash added that “forgiveness cancels the law of retaliation” and that paying the diya financial compensation to crime victims rules out execution.

Lebanese priest Hadi Aya said his approach was similar. According to him, Christians could not accept the death penalty out of respect of a fundamental principle: “One cannot kill a man because he was made in God’s image.”

“Despotic regimes”

The confusion between religion and politics sometimes influences penal policy in the region, which was the focus of several debates. Egyptian lawyer and activist Nasser Amin said that Arab leaders had long used the death penalty as “a way of controlling Islamists, of convincing them that it is the state’s role to enforce Islamism rather than that of Islamists”. Yet he mostly saw the death penalty as the instrument of “despotic regimes” who used it against their opponents.

All those arguments trickled into the abolitionist networks that have been thriving across the region and should develop further, according to Ziad Naboulsi of the Lebanese Association for Education and Training. Speaking at the workshop on “Abolition strategies and cross-disciplinary lobbying in the region,” he said: “We are at the beginning of significant organizational change, from advocacy to networking. We now work as much in the virtual world as we do in the real one.” The role of the Internet and social networks, which proved crucial in Arab revolutions, will also be key to achieve abolition.

Awareness of this new reality rose across the board. Nourredine Benissad, who chairs the Algerian League for Human Rights, acknowledged that a national coalition was needed in his country where no single organization was dedicated to opposing the death penalty. “Our action must be educational,” he added.

Mohamed Habib Marsit, the coordinator of the well organized Tunisian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, agreed. Although political leaders remain the prime target of his action, he said: “Our second target is society. We organize conferences in schools and universities. We have not yet entered the mosques, but we hope that we can get support from the preachers!”

From Rabat to Madrid

Members of parliaments, too, were present in large numbers in Rabat. In keeping with their commitment at the Congress, Moroccan MPs from both the majority and the opposition launched an official network against the death penalty on 26 February 2013.

A workshop will give them a chance to share their experience at the 5th World Congress in Madrid. This will be an opportunity to continue the debates started at the Regional Congress, as will the plenary session on the North Africa-Middle East region.

Thomas Hubert