Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

24th December 2000

Death row battle awaits George Bush

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NEW YORK— As Governor of Texas until last week, President-elect George W. Bush gained notoriety for presiding over nearly 150 executions in his home state where death row inmates in federal prisons kept ballooning.

This year alone, about 40 people have been executed in Texas, the largest number of executions in any state in US history.

As one comedian put it, when Bush discovered that the US presidency was slipping away from his hands over the disputed Florida vote count, he threatened to take all his prisoners in death row hostage and execute them every hour— until the courts decided he was the rightful president.

A juicy plot for a Hollywood movie reminiscent of cold-blooded terrorism, but far from the realities of US politics.

The joke outside Texas is that Texas is not only tough on crime but also rigidly male chauvinist in its attitude.

A woman inmate in death row who requested a special "last meal" before execution was asked to cook the meal herself.

Last week the global campaign to ban the death penalty was launched at the United Nations with a mega petition signed by over 3.2 million people in more than 130 countries around the world.

Among the targets was Bush who has so far refused to yield on the sensitive issue of whether or not the death penalty should be banned in his own state — let alone the United States. As he takes over the US presidency in mid-January, the death penalty issue is expected to come up sooner or later. The campaign to abolish capital punishment is being led by two Hollywood movie stars: Susan Sarandon ("Dead Man Walking") and Tim Robbins ("The Shawshank Redemption"). Both movies were about innocent victims of a biased justice system in the US or the evils of capital punishment. Briefing reporters at the UN, Robbins pointed out that, wittingly or unwittingly, most Hollywood movies seem to justify the death penalty, particularly when the hero, in the final frame, shoots the bad guy to death.

A more unconventional finale would be for the good guy to spare the life of the villain, with the observation: "I am not going to take your life," Robbins said.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave his blessings to the politically divisive issues that has also split the United Nations.

"I congratulate all those who have worked so hard to collect so many signatures," he said, "I wish it were in my power to grant their wish, and by so doing to save the lives of thousands of men and women." The signatures were collected by "Moratorium 2000", a coalition of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), which has launched the global campaign for a ban on the death penalty. The campaign is led by Sister Helen Prejean, a Nobel Peace Prize nominee and author of "Dead Man Walking," a novel and later a Hollywood movie which made a strong case against capital punishment. The signatories include Amnesty International, Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Human Rights Council of Australia, World Methodist Council, the American Bar Association, the Anglican Church, the Dalai Lama, Indonesian President Abdurahman Wahid, and over 100 persons from the academic community worldwide and more than 200 singers, actors, movie directors and athletes. Addressing reporters, Sister Helen said that about 110 nations have no death penalty. Although the United States has refused to support a UN resolution calling for a moratorium, "there is no mandate from the American people to support the death penalty," she said.

The symbolic presentation of the petition was designed to put pressure on the US delegation to the United Nations, which has been "the biggest obstacle to a UN declaration for a worldwide moratorium."

In the US, both at the state and federal levels, race class and geography play a role in who is sentenced to death, according to "Moratorium 2000."

"In addition, the system is riddled with stories of incompetent or severely under-funded defence lawyers and prosecutorial and police misconduct increasing the chances of unfair results in sentencing," it said. And perhaps most compelling, said Sister Helen, is that since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, about 89 innocent people have been unjustly jailed and subsequently freed from death row awaiting execution. "When you have no adequate defence in the US, you have no justice," she said.

At the United Nations last year, the 15-member European Union (EU), in the face of strong opposition from most Third World nations, temporarily abandoned a proposal calling for a worldwide moratorium on capital punishment leading to its eventual abolition.

The opposition came mostly from countries who are either tough on crime or who favour the death penalty for capital crimes. The resolution for the ban was co-sponsored by some 74 mostly European and Latin American countries. But the case for the death penalty was supported by some 83 countries, mostly by African, Asian, Caribbean and Middle Eastern nations, including Sri Lanka, Singapore, Egypt, China, India, Indonesia, Iran, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Japan, Pakistan, Jamaica, Bahamas, Barbados, Niger, Cameroon and Sierra Leone. The United States, in one of those unlikely events at the UN, found itself on the side of Third World nations opposing the EU proposal.

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