BEIRUT: Tony Ashkar’s feelings toward the death penalty are complicated. Two years ago, Ashkar’s sister Myriam was murdered by Fathi Jabr al-Salateen, a Syrian national now awaiting execution in Lebanon.
He said that while he “personally” opposes the death penalty out of his “strong Christian convictions,” he respects the verdict.
“[The execution] will serve as a lesson to others,” Ashkar told The Daily Star, but admitted that the death penalty may not be effective in deterring crime.
But “I’m not an expert,” he added.
“I would not ask for this [Salateen’s execution], but I will not go against it,” Ashkar said.
“[Salateen] was aware that he lived in Lebanon when he did it, and that this is the law here.”
Ashkar’s own ambivalence toward capital punishment highlights the complicated and contentious nature of the issue, which took center stage Friday as dozens of activists gathered before the Justice Palace to mark the 11th World Day against Death Penalty.
Some marchers held black and white cutout silhouettes of heads with ropes around their necks.
They circled the Justice Palace led by a protester wearing a black executioner’s hood, while others held banners bearing the words “Stop crime” and “Stop death penalty.”
Lebanon is one of just 58 countries that still employ the death penalty.
As in all matters concerning the Lebanese state and public life, executions in Lebanon are subject to sectarian considerations, meaning no one can be executed until the proper balance of Christian and Muslim condemned is achieved.
There are currently 54 inmates on death row, but the last execution took place in 2004, with most observers blaming the sectarian sensitivity surrounding the issue.
While Ashkar struggled to reconcile his personal grief and anger with his beliefs, the protesters at Friday’s event were adamant in their rejection of capital punishment.
“We want to abolish the death penalty in Lebanon,” said Mazen Abou Hamdan, member of the Lebanese Association for Civil Rights, one of the organizations behind Friday’s protest.
“We care about fighting the root causes of crime in Lebanon, and not just stopping the criminal.”
Abou Hamdan added that it was Lebanese society’s responsibility to keep the homicide rate at its lowest and to deter criminal acts.
European Union Ambassador Angelina Eichhorst, who was also present, expressed her full support for the protesters’ cause.
“The EU is opposed to the death penalty, in all cases and under all circumstances,” she told the crowd. “You are not alone. There are a lot of people who are with you.”
She urged Lebanon to abolish the death penalty, adding that it was “feasible” to do so.
Caretaker Justice Minister Shakib Qortbawi came out strongly in favor of abolishing the death penalty Friday, emphasizing that deteriorating security and regional unrest should not prevent the repeal of capital punishment.
“The right to life precedes everything,” Qortbawi said.
“The primary aspect of human rights is the right to life.”
“There is no correlation between the death penalty and decreasing crime rate,” Qortbawi added.
He also noted that while the death penalty aims to punish a criminal, “it is an illogical sentence.”
“As a justice minister, who am I and who has given me the power to sign a decree to kill someone?” he asked.
Multiple studies have shown capital punishment to be an ineffective deterrent to crime.
Robert Owen, Clinical Law professor at Northwestern University School of Law in Chicago, told The Daily Star by email that data does not support the claim that capital punishment deters the homicide rate.
In the United States, states that have the death penalty have a homicide rate that exceeds those in the non-death-penalty states every year.
Capital punishment was rare in Lebanon until 1994, when judges started handing out harsher sentences in an attempt to deter criminals in the aftermath of the Civil War.
The methods of execution are either by hanging or a firing squad, and crimes punishable by death include murder or attempted murder, treason, espionage, military offenses, collaboration with Israel and terrorism. Under Lebanese law, a death sentence must be approved by the president, prime minister and justice minister.
LACR published a comprehensive study in 2006 of the Lebanese law with a comparative study of Canadian and French law.
The study was endorsed by several MPs, including Change and Reform Bloc lawmaker Ghassan Moukheiber, an avid supporter of the abolishment of the death penalty.
Moukheiber presented the study to Parliament, and former Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar introduced a draft amendment to the law abolishing the death penalty in 2008.
Moukheiber, along with Future MP Samir Jisr and Hezbollah MP Ali Fayyad, as well as parliamentarians from the Middle East and North Africa, this week attended a seminar in Paris, where he lectured on the reality of the death penalty in Lebanon and efforts to abolish it with the aim of strengthening the criminal justice system, a statement from his office said.
In the years since it was introduced, Justice Minister Ibrahim Najjar’s amendment has never made it into the Cabinet’s agenda, and the current political stalemate in the country makes it extremely unlikely it will be addressed anytime soon.