The 10th October marked the World Day against the Death Penalty and, to commemorate this, the FCO arranged a round table meeting with those who work in government and academia alike to discuss Sharia law and the death penalty.
The United Kingdom maintains a firm stance against the death penalty and actively encourages those countries who still administer the death penalty to move towards abolition.
The speakers at the meeting were Professor Jon Yorke (Birmingham City University), Amna Nazir (Birmingham City University) and Alison Hannah (Penal Reform International). The audience included Members of Parliament, members of the consulate, civil servants, academics and students.
Professor Yorke spoke about the approach to be taken when discussing abolition with countries who follow Sharia law. The approach must not be that Sharia law does not mention the death penalty and therefore it should not be administered, as this is untrue. Sharia law does allow for the death penalty, but the evidentiary standard required to sentence a person to death is so high that, according to Sharia law, it should be nearly impossible to impose the death penalty in reality. Professor Yorke quoted the Sunan Tirmidi which states it is better to “make an error in acquittal than in conviction.”
Professor Yorke discussed the Meriam Ibrahim case as an example. At eight months pregnant, Meriam Ibrahim was sentenced to death in Sudan for apostasy – as she, a Muslim woman, married a Christian man. Whilst on death row, she gave birth whilst shackled to the floor. The case caused international outrage and was broadcast around the world. Meriam Ibrahim was eventually released from death row in June 2014. Professor Yorke explained that there were two things that helped secure Ibrahim’s release; social media engagement and strategic litigation – two areas which should be pursued in future cases.
Alison Hannah, the Executive Director of Penal Reform International (PRI), then spoke about the document PRI had prepared regarding Sharia law and the death penalty – available here. The effects that the death penalty has upon the prison staff and the family of the person executed were discussed. Alison Hannah confirmed that PRI take a “human rights approach” to the death penalty; she confirmed they do not agree with the death penalty as a sentence full stop.
Alison concluded by saying that “it is not the west’s view of Sharia law that matters” - which was an important message portrayed by all three speakers.
Amna Nazir then took the floor to speak about her recent visit to the UN UPR – see blog post here. Amna discussed the transparency that the UPR brings to not only the issue of the death penalty, but human rights in general. She then spoke about the Maldives’ approach at the UPR session she observed; Maldives stated clearly that their constitution is based upon Islam and any recommendations contrary to Islamic law and values would not be entertained.
Amna discussed a possible way to combat this - the stakeholders in the UPR process should be given more information about the fact that, due to high evidentiary standards, in practice it should be nearly impossible to sentence a person to death. By further informing the stakeholders, they could bring this information to the UN’s attention during the UPR process, and may also inform the wider Muslim community.
The information that the three speakers provided at this event will be invaluable to the FCO as they strive to work with Islamic countries on the future of the death penalty.