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DEATH PENALTY-LATIN AMERICA: Broad Support for UN Moratorium

Fabiana Frayssinet*

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 26 2007 (IPS) - Many Latin American governments have not yet adopted a position, or have not communicated one, but the majority trend in the region appears to be to support the resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty proposed by a number of countries to the United Nations General Assembly.

 Credit: United Nations

Credit: United Nations

The motion in favour of a global suspension of executions, which Amnesty International describes as only one step away from outright abolition of capital punishment, will be supported by Brazil, according to a Foreign Ministry statement received by IPS.

The communiqué says that Brazil’s position at the U.N. General Assembly will be “above all to abolish the death penalty,” as this country itself did in 1979. At present the maximum prison sentence in Brazil is 30 years.

Complete abolition of capital punishment is among the human rights goals Brazil proposed to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Foreign Ministry said.

But if this goal is not achieved, “Brazil will support the moratorium,” and if this is not agreed either, Brazil “will keep a watching brief to ensure that application of the death penalty follows international standards, that is, international human rights law,” said the statement from the centre-left government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Perly Cipriano, deputy secretary for the defence of human rights at the Special Secretariat on Human Rights of the Presidency of Brazil, told IPS that this is indeed Brazil’s strategy, and pointed out that the country has historically maintained this stance at international forums.

However, Cipriano stressed that although the death penalty had been officially abolished in Brazil, “hundreds of political prisoners were killed during the dictatorship (1964-1985) in military and police establishments, and those deaths were not officially recognised.”

He said that only recently had the Lula administration published the book “Direito á Memória e á Verdade” (The Right to Memory and Truth), in which for the first time the state accepts responsibility for those deaths.

Argentina, where capital punishment was abolished for common crimes in 1984, appears to be following Brazil’s lead as regards the moratorium, proposed for consideration at the 62nd U.N. General Assembly, which opened on Sept. 18, with general debate beginning Tuesday.

A source at the Argentine Foreign Ministry’s office on human rights told IPS that the resolution for a moratorium, sponsored by a number of countries including leading EU countries, has not yet been sent to the Néstor Kirchner administration, but added that Argentina “is totally prepared to support it.”

In Venezuela, where capital punishment was abolished by the constitution for all crimes in 1863, no official position for the U.N. General Assembly has yet been taken. However, sources consulted by IPS said the government is leaning towards voting in favour of the international moratorium on executions.

Caracas is also likely to give its support to Mexico City, which formally abolished the last vestiges of the death penalty in the armed forces in 2005. In practice, though, no one has been executed in Mexico since 1961.

Sources at the Mexican Foreign Ministry told IPS that the question has not yet been defined, but said at the same time that the administration of Felipe Calderón “is completely against the death penalty.”

The most likely outcome is that Mexico will support the proposal. At the second summit between Mexico and the EU, held in Guadalajara, Mexico in May 2004, the parties signed an agreement, article 7 of which declared “a firm mutual commitment” to the universal abolition of capital punishment.

Calderón belongs to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), which is against capital punishment. The Mexican Supreme Court will not extradite any person to a country where they might face the risk of being sentenced to death.

However, in Peru, President Alan García has other ideas. He wants to bring back the death penalty and has introduced a draft law to that effect in Congress, where it has not yet been debated.

Activists therefore take the view that Peru will oppose the moratorium. “If the governing party lawmakers are in favour of the death penalty, Peru will vote against the moratorium at the U.N.,” the president of the local chapter of Amnesty International, Ismael Vega Díaz, told IPS.

Cuba and Guatemala are the only countries in Latin America that retain the death penalty for ordinary crimes. It has been abolished even for the military courts by Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Uruguay and Venezuela.

But this is not the case in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador and Peru, where the death penalty is retained for exceptional circumstances, under the Military Code and for certain crimes in wartime.

The generalised opposition to capital punishment by governments in the region does not, however, keep the issue from cropping up again during periods of increased public insecurity, when certain sectors begin to advocate reinstatement.

This happened in Argentina in the 1990s, when amid a wave of violent robberies and kidnappings, then President Carlos Menem (1989-1999) suggested reinstating the death penalty for cases of kidnapping in which the hostages were subsequently murdered.

However, human rights organisations mobilised against the initiative and it did not prosper.

In Brazil, too, the debate has been reactivated by the increasing sense of urban insecurity. Eloisa Machado and Daniela Ikawa, of the Sao Paulo-based Conectas Human Rights, told IPS that “the view that social problems will be solved by stiffer sentences is widespread.”

But that just appears to be “an easy way out, whereas it’s completely inefficient as a solution for the problems that deeply afflict a large part of Brazilian society, such as poverty, unemployment, poor quality education, inadequate housing and the lack of human security,” for which structural solutions are needed, the human rights lawyers said.

In Mexico, in spite of the government’s stance against the death penalty, debate is stirring again, although without any changes in practice.

According to a February opinion poll by AP-Ipsos in Mexico, 71 percent of respondents were in favour of the death penalty and 26 percent were against. However, when the question was put differently and interviewees were asked to select a penalty for a person found guilty of murder, only 46 percent chose capital punishment.

Meanwhile, Peru may join Cuba and Guatemala if the García administration’s draft law, reintroducing the death penalty for rapists of children under seven who kill their victims, is passed.

The initiative will be debated again in the Constitutional Commission, the commission chairman Javier Velásquez Quesquén told IPS, because “conditions are now more favourable” for its approval.

Velásquez Quesquén pointed out that this was an electoral promise of García’s, as “the country wants tougher sentences for sex offenders.”

Amnesty’s Vega Díaz said he was concerned by the announcement. “When the International Day Against the Death Penalty is coming up (on Oct. 10), it’s very bad news that the governing party is insisting on its bill” to reinstate it, he said.

In Guatemala the death penalty is on the books, but there have been no executions since 2000 because of a legal vacuum which prevents condemned prisoners from asking for a presidential pardon, and exhausting all legal means of defence.

During the administration of Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), Congress repealed the 1892 Pardons Law. Since then the country has lacked procedures for convicts to exercise their right to apply for a pardon, an amnesty or a commuted sentence.

In order to overcome the impasse that has been keeping 21 death row inmates in limbo, the rightwing Unionist Party (PU) submitted a draft law to Congress in 2006 that would restore the procedure for applying for a presidential pardon.

* With additional reporting by Marcela Valente (Argentina), Diego Cevallos (Mexico), Ángel Páez (Peru) and Humberto Márquez (Venezuela).

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