Abderrahim El Ouali, Inter Press Service News Agency
CASABLANCA, Jun 19 (IPS) – Abolition of the death penalty in the Muslim world is possible but could take a long time, as human rights activists first must fight misconceptions about crime deterrence and Shariah law.
This was the message heard at an annual conference on the weekend organised by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP). Speakers representing abolition groups from around the world added that strategies to end the death penalty in the Muslim world should be based on dialogue with its advocates.
Of the top nine countries which retain the death penalty, five — Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen and Jordan — are Muslim. All except Pakistan are in the Middle East.
Favourable theologians "and the more open Muslim and Arab countries can lead" the abolition efforts, Etienne Jaudel, French attorney and former secretary general of the International Federation for Human Rights, told conference participants Sunday.
Positive signs towards abolition of death penalty in the Muslim Arab world first came when Senegal abolished the practise in December 2004. Morocco, too, is moving in the same direction. The last execution was carried out some 13 years ago.
"We are convinced that Morocco will abolish the death penalty," Youssef Madad, a member of the WCADP steering committee said at the conference.
As an expression of solidarity, five Moroccan parliament members attended the conference. Deputy Bouchra Khiyari told participants that her parliamentary group has already proposed a law that would "execute the death penalty and make it a part of the past" in Morocco.
Nezha Skalli, another Moroccan lawmaker attending the conference,ánoted that the first democratic government in Morocco was led by Abderrahmane Youssoufi, who had been sentenced to death during King Hassan's iron-fisted 38-year rule.
"If the penalty had been carried out, it would have deprived Morocco of an historic leader," Skalli said. That shows "there is always a possibility of a judicial mistake."
Still, the fight to end capital punishment will be long, conference participants said. First some common misconceptions must be overcome
Contrary to what is commonly believed, the death penalty is not clearly ordered by Islam, Mohamed Lemine Ould Bah, jurist and a member of the Association Mauritannienne des droits de l'homme, told IPS. The code of law derived by theologians from the Quran and from the teachings and example of Muhammad is called Shariah rule.
"Shariah is mostly a human thought of Muslim theologians during different ages. Therefore, it can be customised to actual needs," Ould Bah said.
For instance, Ould Bah said, polygamy was once allowed but now has been prohibited.
Within Shariah law, there is a specific set of violations known as Hadd offences. These may include crimes like theft, adultery, and apostasy, which is leaving the Islamic religion. Penalties can include stoning, lashing or the severing of a hand.
Penalties for Hadd offences are not uniformly adopted in Islamic countries. Only a few Muslim nations, notably Iran and Saudi Arabia, include death by stoning or hanging for some Hadd offences.
"The great majority of Shariah rules are not (commonly) implemented in Muslim Arab states," Ould Bah said. He added, however, that many governments choose not to abolish the death penalty because they use executions as a means of oppression.
Iran, for example, is one of the world's most frequent executioners. According to human rights watchdog Amnesty International, the Islamic country is known to have executed at least 94 people last year.
"The death penalty does not help to restore justice or to stop criminality," Amina Bouayache, president of the Moroccan Human Rights Organisation, told conference participants. "Fighting it is a human demand."
Some in attendance at the weekend conference said they believed efforts should be focused on countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where a high number of executions are carried out every year.
"But fighting for the abolition of death penalty is linked to the freedom of speech," which is lacking in these countries, said one participant. Freedom of speech can help in talking about abolition but will not necessarily make it a reality.
Abdelilah Benabdesselem, coordinator of the Moroccan National Committee for Death Penalty Abolition, told the Sunday session that the "death penalty is a serious violation of the right of life," an important tenet in Islam.
Benabdesselem's committee was created by Moroccan human rights activists to help coordinate efforts aimed at effectively involving the Moroccan state in the international dynamic to abolish the death penalty, he said.
Though no executions have been carried out in Morocco for the last 13 years, some 149 persons still sit on death row. Eight of them are women.
Currently there are 283 offences in Moroccan penal law that can lead to the death penalty. Another 66 crimes in military law and 12 violations of the terrorism law also can carry the maximum penalty, said attorney Mohamed Ahdaf.