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Background and strengths: Network for the abolition of the death penalty and cruel punishment

On December 10, 2009, the International Academic Network Against the Death Penalty, at a scientific congress held at the Center for Political and Constitutional Studies, in Madrid. The President of the Spanish Government and, at that time, also of the European Union, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, placed the goal of abolishing the death penalty at the forefront of the urgent contemporary work of humanity in favor of human rights and civil liberties. Faced with this political and diplomatic impulse at the international level, we set out to bring together the best academic specialists on the abolition of the death penalty and agreed to create the International Academic Network for the Abolition of Capital Punishment (in front, REPECAP).

The Institute of European and International Criminal Law, of the University of Castilla La Mancha, assumed the scientific, academic and organizational direction of the Network. More than ten years have passed since that moment and now this scientific proposal of consolidation and expansion of its national structure, through the “NETWORK for the Abolition of Capital Punishment and Cruel Punishment”, In order to confront and resolve through scientific dialogue and research the threats that still prevent the elimination of capital punishment from punitive state orders and the challenges faced by the international abolition process.

Thus, in accordance with the Statement of Motives and article 2 of the Call for "Networks of Excellence", this scientific proposal from RED aims to consolidate the Spanish scientific group that has been working in these years, reinforce its position in the international scientific debate on the death penalty and its alternatives and to extend the presence and influence of Spanish criminal lawyers and public prosecutors in the international context.

The efforts of the initial Spanish research group have made it possible to contact and work together with the greatest international exponents against the death penalty, representatives of the Hispanic world (Spanish and Portuguese) and the Anglo-Saxon world. There is no relevant scientific work on the subject that is not authored by an expert who is not part of that Network or who has not recently collaborated with the Institute of European and International Criminal Law of the University of Castilla La Mancha and the Coordinator of this Research NETWORK proposal. The works published on the subject (death penalty, international abolition of the death penalty, cruelty, long-term sentences) carried out by this research team in previous projects are numerous. A selection of them can be found at

The Institute and the researchers who carry out this proposal have developed various initiatives and research projects on the subject:

  • National Research Project "The abolition of the death penalty in international criminal law" (Ref. DER2012-31589). Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Duration: 48 months. Main researcher: Prof. Dr. Luis Arroyo Zapatero;
  • As has been pointed out, another initiative of great importance as a result of the work of the Institute of European and International Penal Law was the creation of the International Academic Network for the Abolition of the death penalty through the Research Project “Abolition or universal moratorium on the death penalty: Launch of the International Academic Network for the Abolition of the death penalty” / Universal abolition or moratorium on the death penalty: implementation of the International Academic Netword for the Abolition of capital punishment (Ref. DER2009-08240- E / JURI). Ministry of Science and Innovation. Main researcher: Luis Arroyo Zapatero. Duration: 36 months (from 12/01/2009 to 11/30/2012).
  • Citizens and criminal justice: an analysis of the opinion of citizens about the criminal system (DER2015-67184-R (MINECO / FEDER). Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Secretary of State for R + D + I. From January 1, 2016 to December 31, 2018. Main researcher: Esther Fernández Molina. (Researcher of the group: Vicente Martínez).
  • Prison overcrowding and alternatives to detention. JUST / 2013 / JPEN / AG / 4539. European Commission, Directorate General for Justice and Home Affairs. University of Ferrara. Group researchers: Adán Nieto Martín, Marta Muñoz, Cristina Rodríguez.
  • Long-term prison sentences. An applicative model from a transversal perspective. Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. Main researcher: Francisco Javier de León Villalba.
  • Criminal law sanctions in Europe: guidelines for the design and implementation of EU legal acts. Funding: Deutsche Forschunsgemeinschaft. Principal Investigator: Prof. Dr. Helmuth Satzger. University of Munich. Researchers: Adán Nieto Martín, Marta Muñoz, Cristina Rodríguez.
  • Towards a rational assessment of the European criminal laws (Ref. DER2011-28225). Ministry of Science and Innovation. Main researcher: Adán Nieto Martín. Duration: 36 months.

Motivation of the NETWORK

With the collaboration and leadership in each subject of the best groups of academics, the RED will focus its attention on various open debates in relation to the death penalty, such as the international human rights instruments related to this punishment, the experiences of moratoriums and the abolition of the death penalty in certain States and regions (Group for the Abolition of the Death Penalty, directed by Prof. Arroyo Zapatero; and Group The Death Penalty in International Criminal Law, directed by Prof. Gil Gil) , the relationship between the death penalty and certain circumstances such as gender (Group Women, Prisons and Serving Sentences), minority, sexual orientation or race, international diplomatic policy regarding the death penalty, the international cooperation between States and other agents in favor of abolition and, finally –among many other issues-, the debate of civil society on this punishment. But the death penalty is not the only excess of cruelty with which contemporary criminal law hits societies.

The RED is not blind to this new punitive trend that is presented in the form of exasperation of penalties, introduction of new security measures, slide of modern criminal law towards a criminal law of authorship, guilt and dangerousness (Criminal Law Group of dangerousness, directed by Prof. Martínez Garay), a restrictive revision of the penitentiary systems or an increase in the margins of action of the police forces (with the creation, even, of authentic circumstances of police immunity). This punitive international wave, which is present in the European perspective and seeps into state legislation (Basque Institute of Criminology Group, on the adaptation of national criminal law to European criminal law) will be the object of study by the members of the RED, which represent to the best groups on criminal policy, criminal guarantees and human rights on the Spanish scientific scene. It is about reading the new trends in contemporary criminal law from the perspective of criminal humanism and with the insurmountable threshold of respect for the basic criminal guarantees conquered in recent centuries, and which should be inalienable. To this end, the Network has two first-level groups: the Dorado Montero Followers Group, directed by Prof. Berdugo Gómez de la Torre, and the Criminal Principles and Guarantees Group, directed by Prof. Perez Manzano.

Thus, the nucleus is the scientific-technical proposal that is presented, the action of the Network and its members in favor of the abolition of the death penalty and cruel punishments or punishments addresses three central questions:

a) Death penalty.

The abolition of the death penalty on the basis of international criminal law of human rights (specifically, the safeguards of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights - ICCPR-). It is about studying and bringing to light the hard core of the prohibition of the death penalty: the safeguards of article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as part of ius cogens and the prohibition of cruel punishment, of art. 6, which represents an unequivocal mandate on the limits on the use of violence by the State.

The NETWORK would hold an international scientific meeting to discuss the usefulness of these arguments of international human rights rights as axes of the process of abolition of death, coordinating and putting in contact with experts on the matter in the different disciplines of law. criminal law, international criminal law and international human rights law, together with human rights centers and non-governmental organizations.

b) Conditions of legitimacy of alternative penalties to abolition, especially life imprisonment.

It is considered unavoidable, along with the drive for the abolition of the death penalty, to deepen the study of life/permanent imprisonment and other penalties of a similar nature as a substitute for capital punishment, the application of which is increasing in all regions of the world despite to equally represent cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, in a clear fraud of labels. The RED wants to coordinate and put in contact all the agents (experts, human rights lawyers, human rights institutes and observatories, and governments) to connect efforts that reveal this dangerous dynamic.

In addition, the generalization of life imprisonment and long-term sentences introduces another serious problem in the criminal justice system: the possibility of error in the sentences, which, since they are long-term punishments, and even life sentences, add a additional cruelty component to the penalty. The RED wants to carefully study an institution model that has been created in various countries (United Kingdom, paradigmatically), as a criminal case review commission, in charge of reviewing long-term sentences in cases where there is "a reasonable doubt" about of the justice of that criminal conviction (tampering with witnesses, DNA evidence thanks to scientific advances, incorrect investigative work by the police...). The comparative study of these vital institutions for the correction and amendment of judicial errors that can be definitive for the life of those unjustly convicted is an unavoidable challenge in the field of the death penalty and alternative punishments. The RED aspires to place this issue at the center of the international debate in a scientific meeting of the criminal justice systems and the review of long-term sentences, coordinating the institutions and agents that work in these Commissions, to create an authentic model of better practices (best practices) that can be known and shared internationally.

c) Observation and analysis of de facto death sentences by State security agents in the exercise of lethal force – extrajudicial executions- and, where appropriate, by external bodies agreed with him.

These deaths may represent a de facto circumvention of the prohibition of the death penalty. In Spain we have recently seen how one of the most serious terrorist attacks in recent years resulted in the deaths of the terrorists as a result of police activity. It is a problem of facts as much as of legal and jurisprudential formulation of the legal limitations of the use of lethal force in the circumstances of exercise of the position and legitimate defense of the police. The issue encompasses directly criminal phenomena, such as the most extreme cases of the homicide of drug traffickers or those related to it (the Philippines, by instruction of its own president), police homicides in the tasks of identification and police surveillance (such as the case so frequent in the United States with the police homicides of Afro-Americans and Latinos), and, finally, the alleged death of criminals in the course of armed confrontations with the police (as in the case of Brazil).

Actions to promote R & D & i activities and contribute to the advancement of knowledge

1. Training of research staff it is one of the basic pillars on which the future of the country's scientific and technological development community rests. For the members of the network, this objective is a priority. Thus, during the term of the NETWORK, attempts will be made to facilitate mobility between the different groups of young researchers, trying to ensure that those who are in the phase of preparing their doctoral theses carry out stays in other teams and groups integrated into the NETWORK, which can provide destinations both national and international, always with experts in the field. The Network will enhance its training by holding an international workshop on current problems in the process of abolishing the fate penalty, whose protagonists will be the ongoing research of young researchers associated with the Network and postdoctoral researchers. The sharing of the research results of each group, the stays in other centers, workshops will be very useful to promote R&D activities and also generate new knowledge.

2. The NETWORK would promote a tool that already exists and that has been revealed as extremely successful. Within the framework of the activities and achievements of the research team of the Institute of European and International Criminal Law, special recognition is due to the MASIVE OPEN ONLINE CURSE (MOOC) Death Penalty and Human Rights. Towards the universal abolition ( This MOOC constitutes one of the most outstanding and distinctive activities of the Institute of European and International Criminal Law. On February 11, 2019, the third edition of this MOOC has already begun, which would offer the most appropriate support for the dissemination of the research work of the groups integrated in the NETWORK among the potential students of the MOOC. In this way, it is possible to combine the dissemination of results and training in human rights.

3. Scientific activities. The temporary planning of the activities of the Network pivots on the celebration of three national congresses and, finally, an International Congress:

A) Congress "The death penalty in the world, life sentences and long-term penalties", with a prominent presence of young researchers;

B) Congress "Extrajudicial executions and police force";

C) International Congress "Violence and cruelty of punishment."

Beyond the activities of the NETWORK, the participation of the members of the different groups that make up the Network will be encouraged in congresses, seminars and scientific meetings where they disseminate the results of the NETWORK.

At the beginning of the constitution of the NETWORK, a first coordination meeting will be held to connect the groups integrated in the network, specifically define objectives and responsibilities and specify the time planning of the activities. Likewise, at the end of the life of the NETWORK, with the consolidated experience, a final meeting of conclusions will be held, aimed at thinking about how to channel the cooperation achieved with the NETWORK through a European call within the framework of the Horizon Europe program (for the period 2021-2027, which is explained below in this report).

Planning of future joint activities to consolidate the results of the network

The Network intends to take advantage of the synergies resulting from the collaboration during the two years of duration of this initiative to prepare joint proposals that are much more competitive, inclusive and transversal, and, therefore, with many more possibilities of success, and that consolidate the experience of cooperation and place the RED in a vanguard position in Europe. In the coming years, cooperation in criminal, police and judicial matters in the European Union will continue to advance after overcoming the moments of paralysis, and even setbacks derived from the economic crisis, and therefore, it is appropriate to formulate solid proposals for studying the horizon of European criminal policy, because although criminal law continues to represent a matter of national competence of the Member States, community influence is increasing through Directives. Precisely at this point the Network has the Group of the Basque Institute of Criminology, directed by Prof. De la Cuesta Arzamendi, and which with its R&D project "Adaptation of Spanish Criminal Law to European Criminal Law", constitutes a benchmark Spanish in relation to the convergence between national criminal law and European criminal law.

The RED must lead to promoting among Spanish groups the fundamental objectives present in the Horizon Europe program, which is the next EU Framework Program for Research and Innovation for 2021-2027, which is channeled fundamentally through the European Research Council. To this end, it is proposed to hold a technical seminar on Horizon Europe financing of projects related to the Challenges linked to the network that is presented; and, secondly, in the final phase of the RED, efforts will be joined to present a Research Project on European criminal policy regarding criminal sanctions.

Expected impact of the results

In terms of scientific impact and expected concrete results, the RED aspires to:

  • Bring to light the hard core of the interdiction of the death penalty from international law: the safeguards as part of ius cogens and the prohibition of cruel punishment.
  • Give content to the concept of cruelty in order to convert it into an interpretive parameter of clauses 6 and 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
  • Prepare proposals for action and compliance protocols in the State Security Forces and Bodies, to define the conditions for the use of police force.
  • Formulate legislative proposals for the repeal of life imprisonment; work will also be done to develop the prison system for compliance with the reviewable permanent prison.
  • Study the possibility of establishing a Commission for the study or review of long-term sentences in the Spanish penal institutional framework, similar to those existing in other countries. Said proposal would be presented by a Working Group made up of members of the RED to the Ministry of Justice.
  • Unite the most relevant Spanish academic groups in the field of criminal policy, criminal guarantees and human rights, to compete at a European level for funding in the "Horizon Europe" Framework Program, placing a Spanish Network at the forefront of knowledge and European discussion on issues of rights, global society and freedoms.

At the organizational and infrastructure level, the NETWORK wants to be the relevant center of all international efforts directed against the death penalty and cruel punishments, which puts in contact and coordinates the work of academic experts and young researchers, centers/institutes / human rights observatories, NGOs, that act in this field.

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