A penalty nobody should pay

CAN you remember what you were doing 20 years ago? Perhaps you had a different job? Were you married? No doubt your hairstyle looked different. Perhaps you weren't even born.

The world was very different in 1987. The Berlin Wall still stood. Jack McConnell was a maths teacher in Alloa. Tommy Sheridan was a member of the Labour Party. Kylie Minogue sported a perm for her first hit, Locomotion.

On January 27, 1987, Kenny Richey, a young man who grew up in Edinburgh, arrived on Death Row in Ohio after being convicted of a crime he insists he did not commit. Unfortunately, life hasn't changed so much for him in the intervening years. He's still there.

Amnesty is joining with Reprieve and Scottish anti-death penalty campaigner Karen Torley to mark this anniversary by issuing a fresh call for justice for Kenny, as the US marks its own "anniversary" of the death penalty.

Thirty years ago this week the state of Utah executed Gary Gilmore by firing squad, thus ushering in the "modern" era of judicial killing in the United States. For half a decade before Gilmore's execution, US courts had banned all executions, but since January 1977 the country has gone on to execute over 1000 people, one of the largest numbers anywhere in the world.

On the January 17 "anniversary" of the modern era of executions, Texas - by far the biggest executing state in the US - was due to execute another prisoner, despite concerns that the condemned man (Johnathan Moore) was not competent to stand trial as a result of mental illness.

Amnesty International has always believed that the death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It violates the right to life. It is irrevocable and can be inflicted on the innocent. It has never been shown to deter crime more effectively than other punishments. Although the practice is still far too common, progress has been dramatic. In 1977 only 16 countries had abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Today the figure stands at 88.

There have, of course, been setbacks. The recent trial of Saddam Hussein should have been a major contribution towards establishing justice and the rule of law in Iraq. In practice, it has been a shabby affair, marred by serious flaws that call into question the capacity of the tribunal to administer justice fairly. Saddam Hussein's overthrow opened the opportunity to restore the basic right to a fair trial and, at the same time, to fairly ensure accountability for the crimes of the past. It is an opportunity missed and made worse by the imposition of the death penalty.

Unfortunately the abhorrent pictures of Saddam Hussein's execution are just the tip of the iceberg. At least 54 people were executed by the Iraqi authorities in 2006 as Iraq moves back towards a culture of widespread executions.

Further evidence, if we needed it, that the death penalty does more than abuse an individual human life, it reflects and feeds a diminished respect for human life in the host society.

• Further information on the death penalty, including the latest on Kenny Richey, can be found at: 78">www.amnesty.org.uk/content.asp?CategoryID>78. John Watson is Programme Director Scotland for Amnesty International