Monday, January 13, 2003

Amnesty urges Bush to shut death row

Human rights watchdog Amnesty International has urged US President George W. Bush to take a "moral stand" and abolish the death penalty after the Illinois Governor dramatically emptied that state's death row.

The New York Times said Governor George Ryan's announcement on Saturday sparing the lives of more than 150 convicted men and women was the largest emptying of a death row in US history. Ryan reduced prisoners' sentences to a maximum of life in prison without parole.

Amnesty says the scale of executions in the world's most powerful democracy puts it in the same league as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.

It says Mr Ryan's announcement offers Mr Bush a golden opportunity.

"This is a chance for President Bush to bring the United States in line with the world trend against the death penalty," said Amnesty spokesman Kamal Samari.

"He could take a moral stand and signal that the death penalty is not the deterrent to criminals it is presented as."

Mr Bush's home state of Texas has come under particular scrutiny for its frequent use of the death penalty - about 150 people were put to death during the six years he was Texas Governor before he became President. He has defended the system.

Significant step

Mr Ryan, a former staunch supporter of capital punishment who says he gradually turned against a "broken" system, lifted the death sentences two days before he was due to leave office.

He acted on a review that was ordered three years ago after investigations found 13 death row prisoners were innocent.

Amnesty says Mr Ryan's decision marks "a significant step in the struggle against the death penalty" and is urging governors in US states still implementing the death penalty to follow suit.

Illinois is one of 38 states with death penalty laws. The Federal Government also has the death penalty.

Amnesty, a constant critic of the death penalty in the US, marked world Human Rights Day last month by drawing attention to the 600 people it says have been put to death there in the last decade.

Among those executed last year were a mentally ill man, several people whose legal representation was inadequate, prisoners whose guilt remained in doubt, a Mexican denied his consular rights and a Pakistani abducted by US agents ignoring human rights safeguards, it says.

They also included three offenders who were under 18 at the time of the crime - making them the only three child offenders known to have been put to death anywhere in 2002.

Tutu welcomes reprieve

Nobel peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu welcomed the Illinois Governor's decision. He had written to Mr Ryan appealing for mercy to be shown to condemned inmates.

In Kenya, sociology professor Katama Mkangi, who was imprisoned without trial in the 1980s for human rights work, described the commuting of the sentences as "a breath of fresh air in a rotten system".

"(The Governor's) decision is a wake-up call for the United States justice system to catch up with the rest of civilisation."

The US and Japan are the only industrialised democracies in which the death penalty is still used.

[Allegedly] opinion polls indicate most Americans still favour capital punishment!

But support has been eroding and the American Bar Association has called for a national moratorium.From 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated, until the end of 2002 there have been 820 US executions,71 of them last year.

About 3,700 people in the US are on death row.

ABC Online 13 January 2003