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Geneva lawyers spearhead campaign to ban death penalty

Seen from the witness room, the inside of the Texas death chamber Keystone Archive

Geneva is the centre of a new international campaign by lawyers to abolish capital punishment, and the United States is its first target.

“The right to life is at the top of the pyramid of rights,” says Pierre de Preux, the Geneva lawyer who will be coordinating the campaign. “Just because someone is a criminal, it does not mean the state must behave like a criminal too.”

According to human rights groups, at least 1,457 prisoners were executed in 27 countries different countries in 2000, although they say the figures are certainly higher. Eighty-eight per cent of these reported executions took place in just four countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Unanimous approval

The campaign has been launched by the International Bar Conference (CIB), which includes 82 lawyers’ organisations from countries that use the French judicial system. At the suggestion of the Geneva Bar Association, this month’s annual CIB conference in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, unanimously approved a resolution launching this abolitionist crusade.

De Preux says the campaign will be low-key – trying to convince through dialogue, rather than hectoring.

Some CIB members come from countries – mainly in Europe – where the death penalty has already been abolished; In virtually all of the African states, capital punishment is still on the statute books, but many of these are de facto abolitionists, there having been no executions for many years.

De Preux, who is president of the Geneva Bar Association, says CIB members will help in individual cases where there is a danger of a death sentence, but also at the political level, lobbying for legislative change.

US holds the key

Nor will the new Geneva headquarters confine itself to francophone states. De Preux has already contacted the American Bar Association, aware that the United States is key to any international efforts to ban the death penalty.

“As long as the Americans are practicing this penalty, there is very little chance that we will see an improvement in China or Saudi Arabia,” he told swissinfo.

One of the strongest arguments against the death penalty in the US is the worryingly high risk that innocents will be executed.

A Columbia University study found that, over a 23-year period, 68 per cent of all capital convictions were unsafe. Two years ago, the Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, declared a moratorium on executions after a 13th death row prisoner was found to have been wrongfully convicted in the state.

“Lawyers can be weak. Professional errors can lead to someone’s death. We must speak frankly about this,” de Preux says.

With September 11 still fresh in people’s minds and the “war on terrorism” in full swing, now is perhaps not the best time to be trying to convince the Americans that they should give up this ultimate punishment.

“One day, the death penalty will be abolished in America, and the sooner the better,” de Preux believes.

Refuse cooperation

The CIB believes that countries in which the death penalty has already been abolished have a role to play in this fight. Switzerland, for example already refuses to extradite people at risk of being executed, but de Preux would like to see it go further.

In an ideal world, he believes, Switzerland would end all judicial cooperation with countries that continue to carry out the death penalty. However, he acknowledges that this is unrealistic.

Instead he wants Switzerland to refuse cooperation – including passing on financial information – when an accused person is at risk of being sentenced to death for a crime other than the one for which he is being extradited.

This, of course, would have big implications for the fight against organised crime and terrorism. Are the Geneva lawyers not in danger of being accused of siding with the criminals?

“Criminals must be pursued of course, but there’s no need to kill them. It’s a question of where your values lie,” de Preux says.

by Roy Probert

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