North Africa and Middle East between progress and frustrations

World Congress

By Thomas Hubert, on 13 June 2013

“The situation regarding the death penalty is not seamless in the region,” said Amina Bouayach, Moroccan Vice-Chairperson of the International Federation for Human rights (FIDH), to set the tone of the North Africa-Middle East session at the 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty.
A gap seem to separate the disappointment of the attorney and Egyptian militant Nassr Amin – “The question of death penalty did not evolve much since the revolution” – and the abolitionism clearly displayed in the message sent to the attendees by the Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki – “We are by your side, we are against the death penalty, this barbaric institution.”
Throughout the region, abolitionists from the Arab Spring are facing stern opposition.
In Morocco, Houria Es-slami, representative of the National Human Rights Council, reported indisputable progress, with new articles in the constitution guaranteeing the right to life and physical integrity. “They constitute a foundation to prepare for the abolition of the death penalty”, she said.
And yet, the kingdom is still not abolishing it and keeps on abstaining in votes on the UN General Assembly calling for a moratorium on executions.
The same frustration is felt within the Algerian national institution for human rights CNCPPDH, whose chairperson Mustapha Farouk Ksentini notes “a very violent opposition to the abolition of the death penalty from those who are defending religious precepts and those who are shocked by terrifying crimes, especially against children”. In this respect, the CNCPPDH’s strategy aims at reducing the scope of the death penalty rather than abolishing it.

“Thinking on prison management”

According to the Lebanese Member of Parliament Ghassan Mouhkeiber, brainstorming on the abolition of the death penalty in the region must broaden up to take into account other issues disturbing society. For instance: “The families of the victims are scared that a criminal will escape from a poorly managed prison. We must reflect on prison management”.
In a Middle East torn by conflicts in Syria and in Palestinian territories, Mr Moukheiber notes that “we are located in a region where there is a tendency to devalue life.” He offered to address this trivialization through better cooperation between Arabic-speaking activists so that they can share their experience on practices and arguments that have worked – or not – in a given country.
Religious arguments have also a significant weight, at a time when Islamist political parties are claiming power in several countries.
For Tunisian philosopher and anthropologist of the Koran Youssef Seddick, defending the death penalty in the name of Islam is a “manipulation”. “The Lex Talionis (law of retaliation) does exist in the Koran, but we have drifted from a thorough reading of the Koran to mere recitation: this law is not good for the Muslims, it is clearly written”, he explained.
He added that the holy book of the Muslims encourages them to gain redress from the criminal and to forgive him/her.
More generally, Youssef Seddick recommended removing religion from the rules governing the relationships between humans: “We need to separate legislative matters, which are horizontal, between us, and religious ones, which are more vertical, between God and the one who prays.”

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