150th Anniversary of the Abolition of the Death Penalty in Portugal (1867-2017)

by Silvestre Lacerda, Faculty of Letters of the University of Coimbra

© Silvestre Lacerda

Portugal was one of the pioneering countries in incorporating in its legal system a law to abolish the death penalty for civil crimes.

On 26 June 1867, as part of the changing of the Penal Code and Prison Reform, the Justice Minister, Augusto César Barjona de Freitas, won the parliamentary vote, with two abstentions and two votes against, to abolish the death penalty, which he described as the “penalty that pays for blood with blood, that kills but does not correct, that avenges but does not improve and, usurping God in the prerogatives of life and closing the door to repentance, extinguishes in the heart of the condemned all hope of redemption, putting the fallibility of human justice up against the darkness of an irreparable punishment.” King Luís sanctioned this Parliamentary Decree with the Charter of Law, published on 1 July 1867.

The Portuguese parliamentarians who had it approved were fully aware of its European source of inspiration, referring, in the Penal Legislation Commission’s viewpoint on the plan for the Prison Reform Law with the Abolition of the Death Penalty, to distinguished figures of enlightenment thinking on European penal systems such as Cesar Beccaria, Jeremy Bentham, Mably, Filangieri and Pastoret, among others.

In 1870, the decree extending the Abolition Law to the colonies reported, in its preamble, the positive echo that this initiative of the Portuguese Parliament had met in the minds of the principal foreign criminalists and representatives committed to abolition. In 2015, the Charter of Law of Abolition of the Death Penalty (1867) received the distinction of European Heritage Label.

The Law fully satisfied the intention of being a milestone for common European historic memory by consecrating the right to life and proposing, through the related Prison Reform, a prison regime that was innovative for its time. It was proposed in opposition to a punitive justice – the law of the gallows – it promoted a new paradigm of justice and of prison regimes: the regeneration of individuals and their recovery back into society through teaching, carrying out a remunerated profession, alphabetisation, and a regime of isolation and religious education.

Today we celebrate the 150th anniversary of this civilizational achievement for our country and for the world, in addition to its recognition as a European Heritage Label.

Today, this document is a relevant point of reference in the promotion of the values of European Citizenship, with special focus on Human Rights.

The Abolition of the Death Penalty is an on-going debate, expressed through the interventional role of the European Union in conjunction with the states that still use this instrument of penal justice.

In a letter from Victor Hugo, the French writer and renowned activist for the cause of abolition of the death penalty, sent to the Portuguese journalist Brito Aranha, on 15 July 1867, he expressed his congratulations to Portugal for approving the law: “Portugal has just abolished the death penalty. To follow this progress is to take a great step for civilisation. From today, Portugal is the head of Europe. You, the Portuguese people, never ceased to be intrepid explorers. Once, you forged ahead through the Ocean; today, you forge ahead in Truth. Proclaiming principles is even more beautiful than discovering worlds.”

This is an opportunity to look back at this past as a springboard to the future, as demanded by the current, dramatic situation of Human Rights in Europe and the world.


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