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America’s Use of Death Penalty a Thorn in US-EU Relations - 2004-02-05


A recurring theme in international relations is America’s use of the death penalty, while its closest allies are campaigning to abolish it. On today’s Focus written by Rich Kelley, VOA’s Victor Morales examines the dispute and where it may be heading.

Does a government have a right to kill its citizens who have been found guilty of certain crimes? The answer is “yes” in the United States, and in about 40% of the world’s nations. According to the human rights monitoring group Amnesty International, more than 80 of 200 countries -- from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe -- have the death penalty. But the majority of the world’s nations do not. And many of America’s closest allies, including the United Kingdom and most of Western Europe, are campaigning to abolish the death penalty throughout the world.

Leaders in countries that have abolished the death penalty call the practice barbaric, immoral and a blot on democracy. In the United States, however, the death penalty has widespread popular support. Proponents argue that fear of the death penalty deters crime and that it’s a fitting punishment for those who commit murder.

Here in America, 38 states and the federal government have death penalty laws, and some 3,500 prisoners are now on death row. Texas has put to death the greatest number of criminals of any state -- more than a third of the nearly 900 executions conducted in the U.S. since 1977. Former Texas governor -- George W. Bush -- is now President of the United States. Soon after becoming President, Mr. Bush was asked whether he had second thoughts about signing the death warrants of more than 150 convicted criminals. He replied that he had no misgivings:

“I was the governor of a state that had a death penalty and, as far as I was concerned, I reviewed every case and I was confident that every person that had been put to death received full rights and was guilty of the crime charged.”

America’s continuing support for the death penalty has caused problems in its relations with other countries. The European Union is spending millions of Euros on a campaign to abolish capital punishment. Abolition is a precondition for countries seeking to join the EU. Some nations that have abolished the death penalty have refused to hand over suspects to the United States unless they are assured the accused will not face execution. But U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft says other countries’ disapproval of the death penalty will not stop executions in America:

“There are a number of governments around the world that have reservations about capital punishment so that in individual cases where capital punishment is a possibility they do not participate in those cases. We ask our counterparts in the international community to respect our sovereignty, and we respect theirs.”

Mr. Ashcroft’s point was illustrated when America arrested Zacarias Moussaoui, who is accused of participating in the September 11th terror attacks. He’s a French citizen of Moroccan descent and is jailed in America awaiting trial that could result in his execution. France has abolished capital punishment and refuses to extradite criminals to America who may face death. The French government loudly protested Mr. Moussaoui’s arrest. But here in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Ashcroft brushed aside such objections in favor of what he called the rights of the victims of September 11th.

The international war on terrorism faces what may be its biggest challenge. The U.S. and its allies could split over the trial of former Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein, who was captured recently by U.S. forces. The allies are urging restraint, at least until a new Iraqi government is in place in Baghdad. But the case against Saddam Hussein is extraordinary. He and his sons allegedly used rape, torture and murder as instruments of state policy. The regime’s victims are believed to number in the hundreds of thousands. If Saddam Hussein goes to trial, who should conduct it? And if he is convicted, should he face the death penalty?

The American Enterprise Institute -- a Washington, D-C research group -- held a conference recently to examine these questions. One of the panelists was Tom Malinowski, Washington Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, which favors abolishing the death penalty. He says putting the former dictator on trial presents an important opportunity for a new Iraqi government.

“In the last 30 years, Iraq was governed by the death penalty,” he says. “It was governed by a culture of death, retribution and revenge. That was the solution to every problem in Iraq. And I would argue that if the Iraqi people want to turn the corner and create a new society that is revolutionary in every way from what they had before, one of the best ways that they can do that is to establish a government that no longer claims for it self the right to kill its citizens.”

Mr. Malinowski believes that moral arguments against the death penalty are only a part of the calculation America should make. He says the United States should consider practical political reasons for preventing Saddam Hussein’s execution.

“In large parts of the world, including our close allies -- both in the leadership and the public -- people totally oppose the death penalty. They are revolted by it,” he says. “Therefore the legitimacy, first of all, of a trial that inevitably leads to the death penalty will be undermined if Saddam is executed at the end. This is a problem because we all agree that one of the purposes of the trial is to convince the world that Saddam Hussein was indeed a monster. That goal will be undermined if Saddam Hussein is executed. Second, an execution would make it more difficult for the U.S. and its allies to cooperate in future military endeavors.”

Larry Rothenberg of the Center for Strategic and International Studies here in Washington says advocates on both sides of the death penalty issue should respect Iraq’s sovereignty and not try to pressure its new government. He points out that laws already exist to try Saddam Hussein.

“It is particularly inappropriate for people from other cultures and with different traditions, to tell someone that they cannot execute someone for crimes,” he says. “For example, the death penalty has been part of Iraqi national law since the creation of the state in 1921 and is part of the Sharia Islamic law.”

Walter Berns is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an authority on the death penalty. He doesn’t consider Saddam Hussein’s execution an international issue or legal matter or a great moral question. He says that if Saddam Hussein is put on trial, he will be found guilty and sentenced to death because the punishment fits the crime.

“What is the appropriate punishment for this person presuming that he is guilty? Imprisonment? Where? Exile – in France maybe? You really have to raise that question,” he says. “I think that you will find no appropriate punishment other than the death penalty.”

The impending trial of Saddam Hussein shines a light on the deep divide between countries that support the death penalty and those that do not. But the trial, whatever its outcome, will not reconcile supporters and opponents of the death penalty as both sides believe they hold the moral high ground.

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