(Washington, DC) – US President Trump’s call late on November 1, 2017, for the death penalty to be used against Sayfullo Saipov was irresponsible, Human Rights Watch said today.

Sayfullo Saipov, the suspect in the New York City truck attack is seen in this undated handout photo.

© 2017 Reuters
Saipov, 29, is accused of killing eight people and injuring a dozen others by intentionally driving a truck onto a cycling path in New York City. Despite Trump’s initial statement that Saipov is an “enemy combatant” and should be sent to Guantanamo, the suspect was appropriately charged in federal court.

“To ensure justice in this case, President Trump should show appropriate respect for the judicial process,” said Jasmine L. Tyler, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The victims of this crime, as well as the defendant, deserve a fair trial unsullied by potential bias among prospective jurors that could come from the president’s irresponsible remark.”

A fair trial also requires appropriate punishment upon a conviction, and the death sentence as a government-sanctioned punishment is inherently cruel, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is inhumane and inherently irreversible. In the United States, the application of death penalty is also plagued with arbitrariness, racial disparities, and error.

If Saipov is convicted, executing him would play directly into the hands of Islamist armed extremists, who could then cast him as a martyr, Human Rights Watch said. In contrast, people convicted of crimes who are sentenced to an appropriate term of incarceration may fade from public memory.

This is not the first time Trump has called for the execution of a criminal defendant who has not yet been convicted. In May 1989, Trump placed a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five, a group of teenage boys who were coerced by police to confess to the brutal rape of a jogger. The teens were all exonerated by DNA testing, after being convicted and serving time in prison, and were awarded a US$41 million settlement. Nevertheless, Trump has said he still believes they were guilty.

While the death penalty is becoming more and more unusual in the US – executions have decreased steadily since 1999 – only 19 states have abolished the death penalty. The death penalty is widely rejected by rights-respecting governments around the world. New York State’s highest court effectively abolished the death penalty in 1984. It was reinstated by statute in 1995, but that law was struck down as unconstitutional by the state’s highest court in 2004 and New York has been a death penalty-free state since then. Nonetheless, federal prosecutions for crimes occurring in New York could still result in a death sentence.

“The death penalty has been widely rejected around the world because it is cruel, flawed, unfair, and irreversible when errors occur,” Tyler said. “The US should be working to abolish it, not sing its praises at the highest levels.”