The brutal murder of Jordanian pilot First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh by the extremist group Islamic State (also known as ISIS) set off a wave of outrage and sadness across Jordan, sparking calls in the streets and media for revenge.
Jordanian authorities responded quickly. The army vowed that al-Kasabeh’s “spilled blood will be avenged and the punishment that will be inflicted … will be proportionate to the magnitude of the tragedy.” Jordan’s government spokesman promised the response would be “swift” and “devastate [ISIS’s] ranks.”
At about 5:00 a.m. on February 4, only hours after the release of the ISIS video showing al-Kasasbeh’s killing, Jordan executed two Iraqis, both long-term death row inmates affiliated with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the precursor group to ISIS. Sajida al-Rishawi had been sentenced to death for her role in the 2005 Amman hotel bombings that killed 60 people. Ziad al-Karbouli had been sentenced to death for killing a Jordanian truck driver in Iraq in 2007, and was allegedly a top aide to the late AQI leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
While the government’s desire to address public outrage is as understandable as the outrage itself, executing death row prisoners does not weaken ISIS. This round of executions, the second in two months, is a further regression by a country that was until recently a regional leader in resisting use of the death penalty. On December 21, Jordan ended an eight-year de facto moratorium on executions by hanging 11 men convicted of murder. In that case as well, authorities cited public sentiment as the reason behind the executions.
The executions of al-Karbouli and al-Rishawi were carried out following trials that included an appeals process. But to dispatch them from death row to the gallows immediately following news of al-Kasasbeh’s murder, to which they had no connection, amidst official vows to avenge his death, shows that revenge was a motive in ending their lives. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment under all circumstances, as a practice unique in its cruelty and finality. But to execute death row inmates in response to external events alarmingly suggests that retaliation against third parties is driving policy, rather than justice based solely on fairness and individualized guilt.