Opposed to the Death Penalty for Unrepentant Terrorists

Sent On: 
Mon, 2019-03-25
Newsletter Number: 

In our previous newsletter on March 18 I wrote about the terrorist attack on the mosques in New Zealand. I wrote “Terrorists who lack any sign of remorse deserve the death penalty.” hoping to get responses, and this happened. However, I should have formulated this in the form of a question and not a statement. Also, at the time of writing I had the maximum sentence of 21 years in Norway in mind. I also had in mind the murderer of Dutch right wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. His assassin was sentenced to 18 years in prison and was released on parole in 2014 after serving two-thirds of his sentence, the standard procedure under the Dutch penal system.


A few clarifications are needed: Arab-West Report is neither in favor nor opposed to the death penalty, or to any particular point of view for that matter. Arab-West Report favors dialogue and this means it should be possible to have divergent views on particular issues. We have to be open towards each other, listen to each other’s arguments, and be willing to be convinced by the well formulated argument of someone else.


AbdulRahman Mohamed Nabil El-Ghonamy, BA psychology and BA in political science, AUC, Egypt and currently interning at Arab-West Report disagreed with me. Please find below his arguments and my response to this.


Cornelis Hulsman




           Whether the death penalty is justified or not, is one of the most infamous debates in Western/Eastern literature. There is no clear cut answer to such a subjective topic. However, there is an important question that arises when discussing capital punishment: why do we create a justice system? Or what is the main purpose of the judiciary? Do we build our system around the concept of rehabilitation and integration? Or do we create our systems for the purpose of retribution? Furthermore, within the context of Egypt a decision of capital punishment is left to the Mufti. Furthermore, president al-Sīsī showed support to the idea of capital punishment in the worst case scenario. In my view this is problematic, the rhetoric of justifying capital punishment goes against many teachings of Islam, it also gives the government the right to kill on their own terms (legislation, prosecution and appeals).


           Arab-West Report does not take sides or makes claims to such topics as the death penalty. Yet, a discussion is ultimately needed when we are discussing a person’s life. Capital punishment gives the governing body the right to kill. Even though the death penalty is usually given in the most extreme cases, it does not mean that the political systems deciding the verdicts are omnipotent and free of errors. Any political system is subjected to human errors (bribery, crony capitalism, judiciary corruption, etc.); this means that there is always a chance for unjust verdicts that can ruin or end someone’s life. How can we allow such an extreme form of punishment when there is no way for us to guarantee that it was the right thing to do? By just allowing capital punishment to exist, we enable the chance for killing someone unjustly. Moreover, the death penalty has been proven to be ineffective in reducing the crime rate over and over again. That is why as of 2012, more than two thirds of the countries in the world (141) have abolished the death penalty in legislation or practice. This number of countries abandoning this method of punishment is due to the death penalty claiming innocent lives before, proving its inefficiency and incompetence in history. According to Amnesty International, since 1973, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence shedding light at wrongful conviction. In that same period 1,200 people were executed. In addition, the death penalty has proven to be racially biased. Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of the death row defendants (77%) have been executed for killing white victims, bearing in mind that African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.


           Many Muslim scholars and notable figures have called for the death penalty for apostates from Islam. However, those do not represent the entire faith of Islam. Opinions over the death penalty will always vary, that is why we should not blindly follow any notable figure without examining the past, present, and possible future of their claims. In my opinion, the governments of the remaining countries that have not abolished capital punishment are being stubborn, since the majority of the world, facts, and statistics disagree with their ethical framework. In the case of Egypt, we have had and still have a personal authoritarian regime, and capital punishment is another form of oppression that manifests itself as a cancer within our society. This does not mean that all Egyptians agree with the death penalty. Just like ISIS does not represent all Muslims, the scholars calling for the death penalty do not represent all Muslims. Revenge should not be the purpose of a justice system.


           Why choose the death penalty? We live in the 21st century; we reached scientific and technological advances hitherto undreamt of, many advances in psychology, sociology, rehabilitation, and corrections. With all of these advances, we should have more socially effective, non-lethal, and civilized techniques to punish (and rehabilitate) criminals. Amnesty International USA showed in a 2012 report that, at least for the USA, it is also cost effective to keep someone in prison for the rest of their life without parole because the death penalty is very expensive to organize and implement. Whether the defendants are repentant or not should not justify executing them. One of the main goals of the justice system is to protect society; teaching that killing is justified can only cause harm to the society. Furthermore, given that humans are not free of fault, why have a legislation that allows the chance for error to take someone’s life?


AbdulRahman Mohamed Nabil El-Ghonamy





I appreciate the arguments of Abdel Rahman. I further looked into the sentence of Anders Breivik. Psychologists looking into his case and on August 24, 2012, the court ruled that Breivik was sane and sentenced to containment, a “life” sentence of 21 years (the maximum in Norway) that, however, in Breivik’s case, can be extended indefinitely for the protection of society. Max Fisher wrote after the verdict in 2012 “As an American, or maybe just as a moral human being, it's hard not to feel appalled, even outraged, that Norwegian far-right monster Anders Breivik only received 21 years in prison for his attacks last year, including a bombing in Oslo and a cold-blooded shooting spree, which claimed 77 lives. That's just under 100 days per murder.” The American justice system like in most Western societies is built on an idea called retributive justice. This “defines justice as appropriately punishing someone for an act that's harmful to society. Our system does include other ideas: incapacitating a criminal from committing other crimes, rehabilitating criminals to rejoin society, and deterring other potential criminals.”  The Norwegian system is built on restorative justice, healing for the victims, society and the criminal. These are seen as broken people who need to be fixed. See also: A Different Justice: Why Anders Breivik Only Got 21 Years for Killing 77 People.


Norwegian prisons are widely seen as extremely cushy yet Breivik continues arguing that his human rights are violated. Read more in this BBC report.


Sadly, however, Breivik shows no signs of remorse but yet made efforts to write letters to other right-wing extremists and has gone to court to complain about the restrictions he has been facing in prison.


The Norwegian prison system has been very effective in reintegrating prisoners in society but is it truly effective with someone who is ideologically very convinced of his cause? Did the comfortable Norwegian prison environment play a role in serving insufficiently as a deterrent to commit this crime? Prior to his crime he may have considered that 21 years in rather comfortable circumstances was a price that was worth to pay for his beliefs. I am glad that the verdict made it possible to extend his sentence indefinitely since a release of an unrepentant terrorist would be almost a guarantee for an involvement in similar terrorism acts, either by himself or through the encouragement of others.

I also looked into the case of Volkert van der Graaf, the assassin of Pim Fortuyn, leader of a successful new political party created by him, days before the Dutch general elections in 2002.  Van der Graaf was sentenced to 18 years in prison and was released on parole in 2014 after serving two thirds of his sentence after experts had concluded that the risk of recidivism was extremely low. The parole conditions were that he would report weekly to the police and was not allowed to contact relatives of Fortuyn or visit the places of residences, location monitoring with an ankle bracelet with GPS, a ban on communicating with the media and compulsory regular meetings with a psychiatrist or psychologist. Van der Graaf started court proceedings against the terms of the parole. The travel restrictions were lifted, and the ankle bracelet was removed but the ban for communicating with the media remained. Van der Graaf was involved in several other court cases. Dutch court allows him now to emigrate and he cannot talk to the media until 2020. I found no single indication of repentance. Van der Graaf’s insistence in several court cases that he should be able to speak to the media shows his intention to make his views public. I am highly doubtful about this verdict. How could the assassin of a successful politician and thus deeply influenced the political landscape after this assassination be released after only 12 years in prison?


Mohammed Bouyeri [Muḥammad Būyirī] assassinated Theo van Gogh in 2004 and was sentenced to life in prison without parole.  Bouyeri showed in court no regret over his assassination. The prosecutor noted the “He sticks to his views with perseverance.”  A release is technically possible via a pardon by the reigning king or queen but that is extremely rare. Thus, in the Netherlands, life in prison without parole is in practice life in prison.


MEMRI dispatch of March 24, 2019, reports that John Walker Lindh, a U.S. citizen who joined the Taliban in mid-2001, is to be released from prison in May 2019, after serving a 20-year sentence. Lindh, a convert to Islam four years earlier, travelled to Yemen in 1988 to study Arabic for a period of 10 months and returned here again in 2000. A year later he went to Afghanistan with the intention to aid the Taliban. Of course, this raises questions about his time in Yemen. Lindh was trained by the Taliban and once attended a lecture by Osama bin-Laden. Lindh had been captured alongside hundreds of Afghan and some foreign fighters by U.S. and Northern Alliance Forces in Afghanistan in 2001. The fighters, including Lindh, were transported to a prisoners of war camp. It was alleged that many of them died due to mistreatment during and after the transport. U.S. forces wanted to question Lindh and other foreign fighters about their links to al-Qa’ida. The prisoners had not been searched and some had concealed weapons during the surrender. The uprising started after two CIA officers had come to interrogate Lindh and other fighters. One CIA officer Johnny "Mike" Spann was killed by unknown Taliban fighters while the second officer was able to escape. The prisoners were able to take the armory and ammunition depot. It took the Northern Alliance Forces, assisted by American and British Special Forces and air support six days to quell the uprising during which Lindh fought on the side of the Taliban prisoners. Only 86 prisoners out of the estimated 300 to 500 prisoners survived. The Northern Alliance and their American and British allies were accused of disproportionate violence and thus breaking the Geneva Conventions. Amnesty International asked for an independent inquiry which was rejected by the U.S. and British governments based on claims that the well-armed resistance justified the use of air-power and heavy weapons.  Thus, one can hardly expect Lindh to be positive about the violence used against his fellow combatants. MEMRI writes “the news of his upcoming release was criticized by the mother of American journalist James Foley, whose 2014 beheading by the Islamic State (ISIS) was filmed and disseminated widely on social media. She said: ‘I don't think he should be released if he is going to continue to sow hate and terrorism around the world.’ As of May 2016, according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine, Lindh ‘continues to advocate for global jihad and to write and translate violent extremist texts.’


AbdulRahman rightly raised the question of the purpose of the judiciary: rehabilitation and integration or retribution. My point is protection of society. When someone or a group is highly ideologically motivated, the risk of recurrence and influencing others is there. That should be made impossible. The discussions that followed my commentary shows that it was unwise to call for the death penalty for unrepentant terrorists. It is good that Breivik’s sentence can be renewed indefinitely, and that Mohammed Bouyeri only can be released through a pardon of the reigning monarch of the Netherlands. The earlier verdict in the case of Volkert van der Graaf appears, however, to be too lenient and raises questions about the verdict. We will discover this once van der Graaf is allowed to speak to the media. Nothing indicates that Lindh has given up his radicalism which, however, was also fed by the extreme brutality he has experienced against Taliban fighters. Violence usually sadly calls for more violence, not justice.


The same problem re-appears with the captured ISIS local and foreign prisoners in Syria. The Kurds have insufficient capacity to take care of them or to try them. It is not expected that the victors will soon establish an ISIS tribunal. The Kurds fear new violence by ISIS cells who may try to release own members. Most countries, including the Netherlands, refuse to take own citizens back since they are afraid that their legal systems will never be able to provide verdicts that citizens of these countries will experience as just or comforting. In the Netherlands an ISIS fighter can expect an imprisonment of six years. For women this is less (Trouw, March 24, 2019). This means that the discussion about the death penalty or not goes much further and also needs to address issues that can spark extremism.


I am glad with the response of solidarity with the victims and their families and community in New Zealand and with the announcement that new legislation will be introduced to ban military style semi-automatic and assault rifles.


Cairo, March 25, 2019


Cornelis Hulsman

Editor-in-chief Arab-West Report