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Forget what you've seen in the movies. This is what the death penalty looks like up close.

Forget everything you’ve seen in movies about the death penalty. The reality is much worse.

This is my work, these are my days and these people are my clients.

Yes, people like Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran. Men and women who have death hanging over their heads.

It was 2004 when I took on a volunteer role at the Foreign Prisoner Support Service (FPSS) to work on the cases of those people imprisoned, being tortured or kidnapped in countries other than their own.

I can’t say which was the first case to arrive in my inbox as there were simply too many, but forever burnt into my mind from that first week of work is the name Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh.

In the cold morning air on August 15th 2004, 16-year-old Atefeh had a noose placed around her neck and in front of a crowd throwing stones, she was hoisted to the sky by a large crane until her neck snapped and faeces ran down her leg.

Lifeless, Atefah swung from the large rope until her body was lowered to the ground. The crowd turned their backs and left to go about their daily business.

Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh. Image via Facebook.

Atefeh lived in the Iranian city of Neka and was just 13 when she was raped and tortured by an ex revolutionary guard member Ali Darabi. The abuse lasted three years and was often so bad it left her crawling on all fours.

Ali Darabi, her rapist and torturer, was never accused or convicted of any crime.

Read more: She was sentenced to death for her religion and love.

Instead, after a brief trial, Judge Haji Rezai convicted Atefah of “crimes against chastity” for which he decided she must die.

Atefeh resisted the whole way, pleading with the judge to punish her rapist instead. She removed her veil as a sign of defiance and finally threw her shoes at the Judge.

There was nothing more we could do for Atefeh except console her family and honour her final wish to fight on for others.

Hanging-of-Atefeh-Rajabi
“There was nothing more we could do for Atefeh except console her family and honour her final wish to fight on for others.” Image via Wikipedia.
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You need to forget everything you have seen in Hollywood movies about the death penalty – around the world this is the sort of case that exemplifies capital punishment.

The bulk of the world’s executions take place in five nations, two of which refuse to publish official figures, but it is well understood that the total number of people executed every year around the world well exceeds ten thousand.

“You need to forget everything you have seen in Hollywood movies about the death penalty .”

From the owning of a mobile phone in North Korea, to political dissent in China or being convicted of crimes against God such as homosexuality or adultery in the other three nations, the Hollywood depiction that so many people hold in their minds simply doesn’t bare out the reality.

A number of years ago, I was asked to prepare the international law argument as to why a man should not be executed in the US State of Florida.

Read more: Bali Nine pair have plead for their lives in letter to Indonesian government.

He had confessed, he was convicted and a jury of his peers had sentenced him to die by lethal injection.

In the years between his sentencing and his execution, as he sat on Florida’s Death Row, it had been discovered his confession had been extracted by a police detective who had since been charged with obtaining false confessions.

But what should have been clear to anyone was something I noticed the very moment I took on his case. The confession that this man had made was entirely written in English and it had been signed as true and accurate to the best of his knowledge. There was of course a problem: the man who was confessing did not speak English. He was in fact illiterate in his own language of Spanish.

“In the years between his sentencing and his execution, as he sat on Florida’s Death Row, it had been discovered his confession had been extracted by a police detective who had since been charged with obtaining false confessions.”

Despite this and many other flawed processes along the way, after ten years on death row, this man was executed by lethal injection. The process took nearly 45 excruciating minutes as the needle had not properly penetrated the vein and the drug cocktail simply burnt his flesh as he struggled under the shackles holding him down.

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The warden of that prison has since quit his job and is now a campaigner against capital punishment. He has joined thousands of wardens, executioners and police officers who now oppose the death penalty for a variety of reasons – but all of whom have had first-hand experience of the practice.

The man who was executed had a family in a small Central American country. He had left his family and travelled to the US to make a better future for them. They had hoped and prayed that one day he would return home. Through an interpreter I was left with the task of explaining to his elderly mother that he had gone. All I could do is listen as she sobbed and wailed in a language I barely understood.

“The process took nearly 45 excruciating minutes as the needle had not properly penetrated the vein and the drug cocktail simply burnt his flesh as he struggled under the shackles holding him down.” Note: This is a stock image.

I made a commitment that day, which I have kept, to learn Spanish. To come to know their pain through their own words was the least I could do.

This is my work, these are my days and these people are my clients.

Not just the accused but their families, their supporters, and the people who are tasked with killing them. I speak with them all daily.

Read more: 7 months pregnant and she could face the firing squad for allegedly murdering her own mother.

The death penalty has never been shown by a peer reviewed study anywhere in the world to be a deterrent to crime.

It is simply a political tool used by governments who try to paper over society’s problems using fear and half-truths about the efficacy of this brutal measure. In Indonesia, that societal problem is apparently narcotics – and now two young Australian’s will now most likely be killed, but for what?

“The death penalty has never been shown by a peer reviewed study anywhere in the world to be a deterrent to crime.”

Politicians in Indonesia, who will never have to pull the trigger, consistently defend a system that gives perverse results like a two and a half year sentence for the man behind the Bali bombings but a death sentence for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

In accordance with the final wishes of young Atefah, I will work till the end of my days attempting to ensure no more people die at the hands of a brutal practice that solves nothing, further burdens societies with problems of crime, destroys families and condemns the men tasked with pulling the trigger to a lifetime of nightmares.

Martin Hodgson is a Senior Advocate and Anti Death Penalty Co-ordinator at Foreign Prisoner Support Service. He has worked on hundreds of cases around the world with clients including Peter Greste, Tallaal Adrey, Amanda Knox, Rachel Diaz and many more. He specialises in Death Penalty cases particularly in the Middle East, International Law and Kidnap resolution. For more than a decade he has undertaken this work as a full time volunteer and has twice been a finalist in the Australian Human Rights Awards.

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