Summary execution

Summary execution

A summary execution is a variety of execution in which a person is killed on the spot without trial or after a show trial. Summary executions have been practiced by the police, military, and paramilitary organizations and are associated with guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, terrorism, and criminality.


Civilian jurisdiction

In nearly all civilian jurisdictions today, summary execution is illegal, as it violates the right of the accused to a fair trial before a punishment of death. Almost all constitutions or legal systems based on common law have prohibited execution without the decision and sentence of a competent judge, and the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights has declared the same:

"Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No man shall be deprived of his life arbitrarily."
"[The Death] penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court" – ICCPR Articles 6.1 and 6.2.[1]

In practice, though, extrajudicial killings have been illegally performed by police and domestic forces in various countries and times, sometimes under the guise of martial law. (See below.)

Military jurisdiction

Under the jurisdiction of military law, summary execution is still illegal in almost all circumstances, as a military tribunal would be the competent judge needed to determine guilt and declare the sentence of death. However, there are certain rare exceptions to this rule in emergencies and warfare where summary execution is legal.

Prisoners of war

Major treaties such as the Geneva Convention and Hague Convention, and customary international law from history, protect the rights of captured regular and irregular members of an enemy's military, along with civilians from enemy states. Prisoners-of-war must be treated in carefully defined ways which definitively ban summary execution, as the Second Additional Protocol of the Geneva Conventions (1977) states:

"No sentence shall be passed and no penalty shall be executed on a person found guilty of an offence except pursuant to a conviction pronounced by a court offering the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality." – Second Protocol of the Geneva Conventions (1977) Article 6.2.

Exceptions to prisoners of war status

However, some classes of combatants may not be accorded POW status, though that definition has broadened to cover more classes of combatants over time. In the past, summary execution of pirates, spies, and francs-tireurs[2] have been performed and considered legal under existing international law.[3] Francs-tireurs (a term originating in the Franco-Prussian War) are enemy civilians or militia who continue to fight in territory occupied by a warring party and do not wear military uniforms, and may otherwise be known as guerrillas, partisans, insurgents, etc.

Though these soldiers could be legally jailed or executed by most armies a century ago, the experience of WWII influenced nations occupied by foreign forces to change the law to protect this group. Many of the post-war victors, such as France, Poland, and the USSR, had the experience of resistance fighters being summarily executed by the Axis if they were captured. The war also influenced them to make sure that commandos and other special forces who were caught deep behind enemy lines would be protected as POWs, rather than summarily executed as Hitler decreed through his 1942 Commando Order.

According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, irregular forces are entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they do not do meet all of these, they may be considered francs-tireurs (in the original sense of "illegal combatant") and punished as criminals in a military jurisdiction, which may include summary execution.

Soldiers who are wearing uniforms of the opposing army after the start of combat may be considered illegal combatants and subject to summary execution. Many armies have performed this kind of false flag ruse in the past, including both German and US special forces in WWII. However, if soldiers remove their disguises and put on proper insignia before the start of combat in such an operation, they are considered legal combatants and must be treated as prisoners-of-war if captured. This distinction was settled in the post-WWII trial of Otto Skorzeny, who led Operation Greif, an infiltration mission in which German commandos wore US uniforms to infiltrate US lines but removed them before actual combat.

Under martial law

Within a state's policy, martial law may be declared in emergencies such as invasions or insurrections, and in such a case constitutionally-protected rights would be suspended. Depending on a state's interpretation of martial law, this may allow police or military forces to decide and carry out punishments that include death on its own citizens, in order to restore lawful authority or for other vital reasons.

Note that this would not include killing a suspect who is directly endangering another's life, which police can always legally do, but rather, executing a suspect under one's control as a punishment. Proving that a summary execution fell under this legal exception would be exceptionally difficult, as one would have to show why a judgment and sentence of death absolutely needed to be meted out on the spot. Hence, these kinds of extraordinary acts are almost always seen as illegal violations of human rights, as can be seen in the recent protests against summary executions passed under martial law in the Philippines.[4]

Finally, it is theoretically legal for a military to punish its own soldiers with summary executions in an emergency situations that cannot wait for trial by military tribunal. Historically, this may have been reasonable on sailing ships facing a mutiny conspiracy or failed attempt. However, the rarity of such an occurrence in recent years makes it hard to estimate its legality today.

Notable cases of summary executions

Vietnam War

On February 1, 1968, Nguyen Van Lem, a Viet Cong member, was summarily executed by Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the chief of the national police, in front of Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for the photo.

United States

Summary executions are rarely performed by United States as a result of increased judicial oversight, but there have been a few well-known cases:

  • On December 18, 2004, New Mexico's Otero County Sgt. Billy Anders shot and killed Earl Flippen, who was handcuffed, after he killed Anders' partner and his own girlfriend. Anders pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and served ten months of a one-year sentence.[5] Due to the circumstances surrounding the shooting, Anders gained much support from the community.[citation needed]
  • The killing of Angilo Freeland on September 29, 2006, who was suspected of killing a Polk County, Florida deputy and his K-9 partner the day before, has sometimes been described as a summary execution. However, subsequent investigations revealed that Freeland had been pointing a weapon at police in a threatening manner.[citation needed]
  • On November 4, 2008, Abdul Salam poured gasoline on civilian contractor Paula Loyd and set her on fire. Loyd did not survive her injuries. In retribution, fellow contractor Don Ayala shot and killed Salam, who had been handcuffed. Ayala was charged with second-degree murder; he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years of probation and a $12,500 fine.[6]
  • The death of Anwar al-Awlaqi could be considered a summary execution.


Extrajudicial punishment resulting in death is referred to as salvage in the Philippines.


See also

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