Monday, 19 February 2007

Some Way Yet to Killing Off the Death Penalty

Some Way Yet to Killing Off the Death Penalty
Julio Godoy

PARIS, Feb 19 (IPS) - If it were not for a handful of countries persisting in carrying out executions, activists for the abolition of the death penalty around the world would have departed for home after their Third World Congress which took place in Paris from Feb 1 to 3, saying: "Mission accomplished".

The handful of countries still resisting all arguments and evidence -- the United States, the People's Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea -- account for more than 97 percent of all executions carried out annually, some 5,000 or more, according to the 2006 'Death Penalty Worldwide' report by the Italian group ‘Hands off Cain’.

Another 50 countries are still applying the death penalty, but sporadically. These executed some 156 of their citizens in 2005.

The trend towards abolition is undeniable, the international congress heard. In 1981, France became the 35th country in the world to abolish capital punishment. Today, 25 years later, 142 countries do not carry out executions any longer; either they have abolished capital punishment entirely or are observing a moratorium.

The mixed feelings such figures stir up, and the sense of urgency there is to convince the United Nations General Assembly to approve a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment, dominated the three-day congress in Paris, attended by hundreds of personalities and activists from around the world.

Representatives of all 27 European Union member states participated at the meeting, as well as the former French minister of justice Robert Badinter, and delegates from national bar associations and groups such as Amnesty International and the International Federation of Human Rights.

Representatives of abolitionist groups from North Africa and the Middle East, where capital punishment continues is still applied, were also present.

Badinter, who in the late 1970s successfully led the French abolitionist campaign, summed up the mood of the congress. "I am absolutely sure that our cause is just and that universal abolition of the death penalty is upon us," he said at the closing ceremony. "There is an awareness throughout the world that there cannot be a justice that kills."

Badinter's optimism was tempered by the realism that the "salt of the earth" activists still had much work to do. This sentiment reverberated in the final congress declaration.

"We welcome the fact that the death penalty is receding in the world and that since the Montreal Congress (in 2004) Greece, Kyrgyzstan, Liberia, Mexico, the Philippines and Senegal have abolished capital punishment, while no country has re-introduced it," the declaration said.

But, it added: "We regret that, during the same period, some countries have resumed executions after prolonged moratoria, such as Bahrain in 2006, and that the death penalty is still a number of countries including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Vietnam."

The declaration urged the United Nations General Assembly to approve a global moratorium on the death penalty. If this came into effect today, some 20,000 people waiting on the world's death rows would be saved, according to ‘Hands off Cain’ estimates.

Most of these are in China. The Paris congress addressed a specific plea to the Chinese government to introduce a moratorium "in the prospect of the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 and the Shanghai Universal Exposition in 2010."

The congress also called for abolition of the death penalty in China for "non-violent offences, including economic and drug offences."

Numerous factors have contributed during the past decades to the growing number of countries joining the ranks of the abolitionists, Eric Bernard, general secretary of the French human rights group Ensemble contre la peine de mort ('Together against the death penalty'), the organiser of the congress, told IPS. Activists had taken their campaign to the world stage. The capital punishment issue was no longer a national penal issue, but a "central international human rights one," he said.

"Executions are no longer seen as an effective deterrent to crime, but as dehumanising for all society. Numerous judicial mistakes in countries applying capital punishment have also contributed to raising this awareness."

Horrific events surrounding executions have also helped to turn the tide of public opinion and governments against the death penalty.

One of the most recent was the 34-minute lingering death of Angel Nievez Diaz, executed in Florida last December. The first lethal injection failed and another was needed to finally kill the convict.

According to the local county medical examiner, the injections caused 30 cm-long chemical burns on Diaz's arms. Witnesses, including Diaz's lawyer Neal Dupree, reported under oath that Diaz grimaced in pain as the execution dragged on.

The botched execution forced Florida governor Jeb Bush to suspend all planned executions and to set up an investigative commission on the application of the death penalty in his state. The suspension gives respite to 398 people condemned to death in Florida.

"The death penalty is being questioned all over the country," Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information Centre based in Washington told IPS in a telephone interview.

The Diaz execution was the 53rd of 2006, the lowest figure in the United States for 10 years.

But the death penalty continues to be applied in 38 of the 50 states in the United States. Ten states have suspended executions, and one, New Jersey, announced in January it will be abolishing the death sentence.

"Capital punishment is risky, expensive, and could result in irreversible error. Fewer people are now willing to put their faith in such a flawed policy," Dieter said.

A symbol of the strengthening of resolve to see an end to the death penalty for all time was offered by France.

Twenty-five years after Robert Badinter won his campaign against death penalty there, the French parliament agreed in February that this decision should be enshrined in its constitution. (END/2007)

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