Skip to content Skip to footer




© Columbano Bordalo Pinheiro
1834 – 1900
The death penalty is the "punishment that pays blood with blood, murdering without rectifying, avenging without improving."
Augusto César Barjona de Freitas

A jurist, law professor, member of parliament and minister - notably of Ecclesiastical Affairs and Justice - Augusto César Barjona de Freitas led important reforms such as the judicial and administrative re-organisation, but above all the abolition of the death penalty. Portugal was the second state to abolish the death penalty after Tuscany1 , and thus the first country in the European Union, even though this entity did not yet exist. And although the influence of the EU did not in any way guide its decision, Portugal carries within it the foundations of the abolitionist value, promoted today by all European states.

While no woman was executed in Portugal after 1777, and no man since 1846, as early as 1852, Manuel José Mendes Leiten presented to the Chamber of Deputies a proposal to abolish the death penalty for political crimes. This gave rise to the "Additional Act to the Constitution". In 1863, the Chamber passed the abolition of the death penalty as a matter of right, but their decision did not receive royal assent. Based on this prophecy, the minister Augusto César Barjona de Freitas proposed the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes, except for treason in wartime. He describes capital punishment as 'the penalty that repays blood with blood, that kills but does not correct, that avenges but does not improve, and that, usurping from God the prerogatives of life and closing the door to repentance, extinguishes in the heart of the condemned all hope of redemption, opposing the fallibility of human justice to the darkness of an irreparable punishment'.

Barjona de Freitas' project was presented to the House of representatives on February 9 & 10, 1866. It was approved, as well as in the Chamber of Peers, and remarkably, with only two abstentions and two votes against. The law, which was pioneered and consecrated by King Luís, was published on July 1, 1867. It stipulates in its article 1, the abolition for civil crimes. Notably, the decree of June 9, 1870 was extended and applied to the colonies. The question of reinstating capital punishment has never been raised since then. This early abolition has been lasting. Nevertheless, it was not until the 1976 Constitution - after the fall of Salazar - that the supreme punishment for military crimes was also abolished.

A source of European inspiration, referring to eminent figures of Enlightenment thought - notably Beccaria -, this political action was also strongly influenced by Freemasonry, which was very present in 19th century Portugal, counting a number of deputies, ministers, peers of the kingdom and senior civil servants, carrying a humanist ideal. In parallel with the abolition law, a prison reform was proposed, developing an innovative prison regime, in opposition to punitive justice: regeneration and rehabilitation of individuals into society through education, paid work, literacy, etc.

Marie Bardiaux-Vaïente

[1] Tuscany - then independent before its incorporation into Italy - was the first abolitionist state in the world. Leopold, Grand Duke of Tuscany, abolished the death penalty in 1786, following the presentation and influence of his advisor, Cesare Beccaria. Beccaria published the first work on the abolition of the death penalty, Crimes and punishments, in 1764.

Ending the death penalty

Author: Andrew Hammel
Publication Date: 2010
Edited by: Palgrave MacMillan

Why has Western Europe abolished capital punishment, while the United States continues to execute prisoners? Who were the leaders of Western Europe's successful abolition campaigns, and what strategies did they use? What are the prospects for international law efforts to abolish capital punishment?

Drawing on research in multiple disciplines and many foreign-language sources, this book proposes answers to these questions. Movements to abolish the death penalty cannot be understood without a grasp of the dynamics of public opinion on capital punishment, which is driven not by rational consideration but by what cognitive psychologists call 'social intuitions,' deeply rooted attitudes which are resistant to change. European death-penalty abolitionists quickly realized the futility of trying to change public opinion on a mass scale, and instead devised strategies to accomplish abolition despite lingering public support for the death penalty. Pointing to the importance of political structures that allowed European abolitionists to bypass public opinion, this study assesses the prospects of the 'European model' of abolition in global perspective.
Share on

Contact us

Ensemble contre la peine de mort (Together Against the Death Penalty)
62bis Avenue Parmentier
75011 Paris

Tel: + (33) 1 57 63 03 57

Fax: + (33) 1 80 87 70 46



With financial support from:

In partnership with:

The ideas and views presented on this website should not be taken to reflect the official position of the funding partners.