IN THE Grassmarket in central Edinburgh, a round stone known as the “shadow of the gibbet” marks the site’s history as an execution spot.
While capital punishment continued in Britain long past the last Grassmarket execution in 1784 – the last hanging in Scotland was as late as 1963 – this memorial to such a gruesome practice is an important reminder that barbarity is a part of our history.
Yet in many places around the world, capital punishment is a live issue. While more than two-thirds of countries have now abolished the death penalty, there are still hundreds of state-sanctioned executions each year. This number excludes China as the number of people being put to death is considered a state secret, but is thought to be in the thousands.
Amnesty International’s annual report on the use of the death penalty worldwide makes for chilling reading. Excluding China, almost four-fifths of all executions worldwide took place in just three countries – Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Iran sentenced at least 369 people to death – this was the official number of executions acknowledged by the authorities, but there is credible evidence of the death penalty being carried out in secret, meaning the total number may be more than 700 executions – in just one year.
There are many sensible, pragmatic arguments to be made against the death penalty – it is often impossible to prove a crime without any doubt and there is no conclusive evidence that the death penalty acts as a deterrent.
However, there is an even more fundamental reason to object. Human life is priceless. The deliberate ending of another’s life is not a tool to be used by governments in cold blood. In extreme cases of murder or sexual assault, there will always be a public lust for vengeance. The death penalty has never been solely about these extreme cases.
Throughout history, untold horrors have been perpetrated at the hands of governments and regimes for petty crimes or over religious or political disputes. Humanity has now ended these practices across most of the world – let us look forward to state executions being ended forever in our lifetimes.
• Marco Biagi is MSP for Edinburgh Central