Voices for Death Row Inmates to stage second, bigger London event

It’s great to know that coordinated support is growing in the UK for the abolitionist cause. The UK group Voices for Death Row Inmates are organising their second peaceful protest in London this year, this time to coincide with World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10th October 2010, whose primary focus this year is the USA.

The Facebook event page invites you to sign up to attend if you know you can definitely make it – and more details will become available closer to the day.

The October protest will build on the April event, which was supported by Abolition UK and speakers from overseas.

“The day was a fantastic success. Many friendships where formed and it was a highly emotional day.

To coincide with World Day Against the Death Penalty, Voices for Death Row Inmates will be holding another protest outside the US Embassy to show the US authorities that we do not agree with them murdering other men and woman as a punishment. We will stand in solidarity with others who do not agree with this outdated, cruel and unusual punishment”

Confirmed speakers are:

Michael O’Brien – wrongfully conflicted of murder, spent 11 years in jail.
Juan Melendez – spent 18 years on Florida’s death row.
Jo Berry – Jo talks about forgiveness. Her father was killed by the IRA in Brighton.
Connie Wright – Connie sat and watched as her husband was executed by the state of Texas.
Bente Hjortshoj – witnessed her good friend executed by the state of Texas.
Gabi Uhr – Gabi has witnessed two executions.
Susanne Cardona – Chairperson of the German Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty
Sandie Blanton – witnessed the execution of her fiancée Reginald Blanton

Please join the action on 10th October and lend your voice to help support those living in intolerable circumstances in the USA, facing execution, often for crimes THEY DID NOT COMMIT. Taking a life for a life is always reprehensible, but not only are there significant risks in the USA of miscarriage of justice, but in many cases – such as that of  Jeff Wood – the sentence of death was brought KNOWING the defendant did not commit the crime, but under Texas’ capricious and extreme Law of Parties.

Other things you can do:

Voices for Death Row Inmates Ceramic Mug

Don't be a mug - visit the VfDRI website

Please visit the merchandise pages for Voices for Death Row Inmates and make a donation or buy an item. Money raised from merchandise sales are used to help fund the expenses related to mobilising speakers and continuing to raise the profile of the cause.

Visit Abolition UK’s pages and perhaps support or attend their summer events. Jo Royston, founder of Abolition UK, travels to summer Green fairs and Peace fairs to promote the cases of several prisoners facing execution. She (and others amongst us) can also be booked to speak at student and other events about the facts behind the death penalty.

Join The Optimism Club Facebook Group and see events and causes posted there – and feel free to add your own or contribute to discussions.

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Event: Voices for Death Row Inmates – London, UK, April 2010

Please see the Facebook Event Page.

On the 30th April Voices for Death Row Inmates have organized a day of action. This involves London, Ohio, Australia and Texas all confirmed with other locations awaiting location confirmation.

At the London event we will have several guest speakers and hopefully an exonerated former death row inmate. We are proud and honoured to announce that Gilles Denizot has confirmed that he will be there to speak about his life working to end the death penalty.

We are holding this peaceful event to show that the world have not forgotten the inmates who sit awaiting their state sanctioned murder. We urge the U.S to abolish the death penalty. They need to be heard and we are their voice.

So make the 30th April available in your diary and get yourself to London, we all fight for the same thing and so join us in solidarity.

This WILL be a day of success and will be the first of many events held by ”VOICES FOR DEATH ROW INMATES”

Venue: Outside US Embassy, London (tbc)

Say No to the Death Penalty! Day two in Geneva – afternoon plenary session

A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Geneva, Switzerland

OK – this is a long post – it was a long session!

International and Regional Organizations: commitments to abolition of the death penalty

The afternoon session at the Centre International des Congrès de Genève was a large-scale plenary session with a series of panels. The purpose was to give a ‘state of the world’ overview of where we are at, globally speaking, with the death penalty, and what instruments are at our disposal with regards to both opportunities and challenges/obstacles. This post does get rather long-winded – but please take a moment to read through as there were some very revealing anecdotes and useful points of view given.

First up were representatives from major civil bodies: the United Nations, the Council of Europe and the European Commission. 

Examples of Instruments at Europe’s disposal

  • Instruments available for Human Rights within Europe include money for funding  – some £8 million is set aside annually for the management of around 16 abolitionist projects around the world.
  • Specific sanctions: internal EU rules prohibit the trade in tools of execution and torture: gallows, guillotines, automatic drug injection systems such as those used in the lethal injection procedure, for example.
  • The Council of Europe has added articles to European Law aimed at human rights and capital punishment is a priority. The Russian Federation is the only state in the Council of Europe not to have adopted this but it has at least set up a moratorium, and no executions have occurred since 1997. Russia is now committed to a path leading to eventual abolition.
  • Additionally, protocol 13 of the Treaty of the Council of Europe has also now been ratified prohibiting executions in wartime.

The Shame of Europe

Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe – it would not sign to the requirements and so was kicked out. It is the sole European state to retain the death penalty.

Staying on-message in Europe

Other things that have been done: lobbying; the Council of Europe organized an international Day against the death Penalty. There is a consciousness that in spite of progress in Europe, the death penalty is still a popular and emotive subject (and potential vote-winner). States require constant persuasion that it is wrong, doesn’t work, and should remain abolished. This, the panellists acknowledged, is a constant struggle.

Observation and intervention in non-member states.

The Council of Europe has a role to intervene in individual cases in the USA and Japan to argue for stays and/or clemency

Next, panellists were asked about current obstacles to abolition. The following were notes I took on the responses

  • Russia and South Africa demonstrate how quickly change can happen. Just a few years ago they both maintained that the death penalty was ‘very popular’ domestically and said they had the high crime rates to warrant it (!.) Today, each of them have either abolished or committed to abolish the death penalty.
  • Anecdotally, Ireland recently hosted a re-introduction debate; which was ended with immediate effect when they realised they would have to leave the European Union. So – international law works.
  • A later panellist told a similar story about a recent visit to Albania, where a discussion about ending culture of blood feuds descended into a positing that re-introducing the death penalty would solve it (because family members would not have to seek vengeance if the state did it for them when a loved one was murdered). Reminding Albania that this would mean having to leave the EU and Council of Europe put a swift end to the argument.
  • This niggling to reinstate the death penalty is a common theme. Individuals respond to heinous crimes by saying we need to bring back the death penalty. This is something which needs to be addressed across Europe at the popular level. The arguments are clear:
    • The death penalty is NOT a deterrent
    • All sorts of practices which once were considered acceptable and normal are today inconceivable in modern culture and for decent people: slavery; restricted franchise for women…
    • DNA advances mean that proof of innocence is increasingly being shown for the wrongfully condemned. Laws of averages imply that this is just the tip of the iceberg when you consider how many wrongfully convicted inmates are still on death rows or worse, have been executed.
  • This popular sentiment obstacle could be overcome in part by creating allies for the cause amongst the business world: corporate social responsibility could include refusal to invest in countries or states where the death penalty exists.

Note – nobody on the panel mentioned educating the young; this however, did come up more than once in the evening session hosted by Journey of Hope  , campaigning organisation run by families of victims, and Joaquim José Martinez , an exoneree (next post).

Human Dignity and the Right to Life

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture gave an interesting presentation summarising his recent report to the UN on the right to human dignity.  This right is written all across International Law and Codes, and includes treatment of slavery, torture, cruel and inhumane punishment. He made the point that in 1950, only 8 countries had abolished for all crimes, and only 11 more for ‘ordinary crimes’.  At that time, corporal punishment was also practised. Today, corporal punishment is widely considered CIDP (Cruel, Inhumane or Degrading Punishment).  So our understanding of what constitutes degrading punishment has evolved.

Today, 138 countries (two-thirds of all states) have abolished the death penalty. Some states continue to separate CIDP from the ‘right to life’ element of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its flavours in constitutional law. e.g. The USA – they do not condone CIDP and yet they do not recognise the right to life. This ‘separate’ interpretation is no longer compelling though – by extension, if every other form of physically injurious punishment is degrading, how can capital punishment not also be cruel?

Nowak believes the UN needs a fresh look at the relationship between human dignity and the right to life to reinforce the connection.

The OSCE (Organisation for Security and C… Of Europe)

This body includes ALL European states and the USA. Of this group, only the USA and Belarus are retentionist. There is no OSCE ‘commitment’ against the death penalty as this requires a consensus – and the USA and Belarus will not agree. But, states have committed to some things, such as making information public. So – the OSCE is able to publish the facts and this increases pressure on the non-conformists to some degree. They are also subject to peer ridicule: the matter of the death penalty is raised at weekly meetings with these states – again this increases pressure on them from outside to abolish.

African nations – summary of approach

First off, it was noted that African nations do comment that the USA still carries out the death penalty, while they are all being asked to sign moratoria – and this sends out an inconsistent signal.

The context in Africa is one of believing that “we cannot afford to keep incorrigible, dangerous individuals in society” so we need to kill them.

The world is divided between retentionists and abolitionists. In Africa this division is serious: culture, history, colonialism have all taken their toll in creating strong pro-death-penalty views. On the other hand, human rights organisations have been able to make some headway putting the opposite case. Efforts across the African nations are focussed on two areas:

  1. How do we disentrench capital punishment from penal codes?
  2. Attempting to embed the ‘right to life’ in national constitutions.

Across the Arab-African world, the only nation to have abolished the death penalty is the smallest – Djibouti. It can’t help but be noticed that most countries across the entire Arab and African region which have the death penalty are Muslim. Islam plays a key role here. Despite many discussions with Sharia Islamists about the right to life, they still promote the death penalty for

  1. Murder
  2. Apostasy (rejection of the Muslim faith)
  3. Adultery

Tales from Asia and the Middle East

Philip Alston of the UN Human Rights Council admits he gets nowhere with the Middle East. In Iran, persistent execution of juveniles is unquestionably against international law. They have no compunction whatsoever about this in Iran. It’s the same in Saudi Arabia. Neither country responds to UN HR Council correspondence.

[Note there was no opportunity ( or time) to ask questions during the course of the afternoon panel. I would have liked to know whether the UN could recommend or enforce further economic sanctions against these countries to force them to talk about Human Rights.]

In the Philippines, the death penalty has been abolished. In effect this is because the Philippines is a great exporter of labour, and they were finding that a lot of its migrant workers were being executed with impunity in the Middle East. So they were forced to get rid of the death penalty themselves in order to get that ‘off their books’.

Singapore: the judge is obliged to sentence a person to death for drug possession, even the smallest amount. There is zero tolerance. This contravenes international law as no due consideration is given to potential extenuating circumstances. Singapore’s reaction to Philips’s attempts to visit is complete rejection. However that said, Singapore’s execution rate has reduced in recent years.

In Indonesia there is currently a stated commitment to the death penalty but ongoing pressure both internal and external to abolish [no opportunity here to ask question about the recent introduction of Sharia Law to national penal code]. Interestingly, in Indonesia there is an inexplicably high number of foreigners on death row. It is unclear whether this is down to police or court discrimination, because obviously it is not just foreigners who handle drugs. But discrimination is surely indicated.

In Thailand there are some 757 currently on death rows in Bangkok alone. These convicts are hungry for information as they are kept completely in the figurative ( and possibly physical) dark. They are permanently shackled, crowded, share cramped dormitories, and have little access to medication and food.

China, India, Pakistan – no invitation to visit is ever extended to Philip: they simply will not countenance meeting with a UN rapporteur for the death penalty and torture. They will however meet with other rapporteurs for ‘softer’ human rights issues. Philip made the point that while abolition is important, we mustn’t lose sight of other wins we can achieve in these geographies, e.g. Question of ‘transparency’. In China, we are told they perpetuate the death penalty because ‘public opinion wants it’. The UN’s response is ‘ does the public know how many citizens are executed, where and why?’ The answer, as we know, is that of course they don’t. The public information is based on no information. Meanwhile, due process was recently introduced in China whereby the central court needs to confirm every single death sentence. This makes it harder for regional courts to be profligate with their  executions. Also of importance, in China the range of ‘serious crimes’ warranting the death penalty, while more rangy than most other retentionist nations, is nonetheless shrinking.

This question of ‘what are the most important crimes?’ is a very sensitive one. In Nigeria for example, it is believed that sodomy destroys the very fabric of society, and is therefore the worst possible crime and must be punished by death.

Say No to the Death Penalty! Geneva, Day 2 – Morning Session

 A daily blog from the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty

[Please note, hoping to add some photos later on…]

Today, Tuesday 24th February 2010 is a date that resonates for two reasons.

  • It is the day Hank Skinner was due to be executed in Texas (stay of four weeks granted …)
  • It’s the day the world came together at the United Nations in Geneva to celebrate progress and promote further action against the death penalty.

It was an early start: we’d been advised to turn up in good time to the United Nations building in order to get security-cleared and to guarantee a seat in the main hall. This room is grandly titled ‘Room XX of the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations, at the Palais des Nations’, and you’d recognise it from TV – the huge, artistically designed domed ceiling, the circular seating with personal deskspace at each, and comprehensive audio assistance. So exciting! The setting certainly created the atmosphere for a serious gathering of world-class speakers, and it quickly became obvious that there were some genuine icons in human rights present in the room.

 We heard welcoming words from dignitaries from around the world. Countries represented were Switzerland (our hosts), the USA, Benin, France, Argentina, Italy, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg and Spain.  Highlights from the morning included:

Bianca Jagger, Goodwill Ambassador for the death penalty on the Council of Europe. Bianca spoke in detail and with great passion about the gross injustice of the death penalty and admitted that the USA and China’s stance sickened her. She drew particular attention to specific current cases in the USA. She also reminded us that some 42 cases of lethal injection since 1992 have gone horrendously wrong, with inmates insufficiently anaesthetized. 

‘This is not an execution it is a murder. I was stunned and very sad that SCOTUS ruled the lethal injection ‘humane’ in 2008.

 ‘There is a shocking lack of access to executive clemency in USA. Bush is renowned for having said “I am confident that every person executed on my watch was guilty”.  State-sanctioned murder has no place in the modern world. America must get its house in order. ‘

Gry Larsen, Norway’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs spoke eloquently about progress being made, particularly in Europe.

‘The global shift over last 20 yrs shows us it IS possible to choose to abolish,’ she said. ‘Those countries who have abolished have not suffered poor consequences with respect to stability or serious crime. Countries are free to choose and Norway says “The door is open now for greater freedom to choose not to take lives”.  The balance has tipped. In 2008 only 25 nations carried out executions. We have seen rising respect for human dignity. We need more!’

Jean  Asselborn, Foreign Affairs Minister for Luxembourg explained that we have to convince humanity in media, schools, parliaments and through collaboration and he hopes for enlightened public debate at national levels across retentionist states. He congratulated the political courage of Mongolia, Burundi and Togo in abolishing, and additonally hopes that other US states will follow the example in 2009 of New Mexico. He reiterated Bianca Jagger’s insistence that the USA should lead by example.

Robert Badinter, former French Minister for Justice and author of French abolition – France was the 35th country to go the distance in 1985 – and there are now 138 worldwide.

‘Consider Europe’s bloody past and realise what a huge step it is that European states are now forbidden under law to execute!’ he said.

Abdou Diouf, Former President of Senegal, a rare African nation to have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. He also spoke inspirationally.

‘Death rows are rows of shame,’ he stated. ‘Man is the remedy to man.’

We also heard from Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, the Spanish President. Although unfortunately I couldn’t get an instant translation for his speech. But never mind, it was on message for sure, given the applause…

Two new Amnesty events for February

Please see our Events section! News of two new campaigns coming up very shortly:

Unite 4 human rights in Iran

Unite for Human Rights in Iran - Feb 11th

1) Unite for Human Rights in Iran

February 11th is a day of significance in Iran. Amnesty is asking bloggers of the world to unite by posting something on that day to reflect the travesty of Human Rights abuse in Iran. Executions are happening and pending daily there. The Optimism Club will be posting a blog for Iranian justice on that day. Please see the links for more background and details of how you can get involved.

2) Amnesty USA hits the road this month with Witness to Innocence to educate the US public on death penalty issues. Feb 26th – March 7th. Are you resident in the USA? You can join in!

Remember, readers, we WILL see an end to the death penalty in the USA – perhaps within the next ten years – but it needs an active attitude. Don’t be afraid to challenge the points of view of those who claim to support it. There is no justification for capital punishment, anywhere in the world. Check out the Resources page on this website for some starting places to inform and equip yourself in these discussions.