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US execution raises concerns in Switzerland

Helene Leutwiler holds a discussion group on the death penalty. ZVG

The execution in the United States on Monday of the Oklahoma bomber, Timothy McVeigh, has fuelled international debate over the death penalty. In Switzerland, the practice is widely condemned, and many Swiss communicate with prisoners on death row in the US.

The Swiss public had little sympathy for the man who planned and carried out the Oklahoma bombing, which claimed the lives of 168 people six years ago.

But many Swiss are dismayed by the media circus surrounding his execution, and angry that money should be made out of someone’s death. Thousands of journalists covered the event.

According to Lukas Labhardt, of the Swiss section of Amnesty International, there is widespread opposition in Switzerland to the death penalty, and there is no movement supporting its introduction.

Contrary to general belief, he adds, the death penalty is not a deterrent to violent criminals.

McVeigh’s death by lethal injection is a particularly sensitive topic for the hundreds of Swiss, who correspond with prisoners on death row in the US.

Barbara Haug of the Basel-based organisation, Lifespark, which opposes the death penalty, says women form the majority of the 500 Swiss who write regularly to inmates.

“We want to open up a window to the outside world for death row prisoners, who are generally cut off from everything,” Haug says.

One of the Swiss correspondents is Helene Leutwiler from Lucerne. She writes regularly to Robert E. Smith, condemned to death in Texas for shooting a man during a raid on a shop. Smith, a black man from a poor background and with little education, has been on death row for 10 years.

Leutwiler is determined to be there when Smith finally dies. “Although I don’t know where I’ll summon up the strength from, I don’t want him to be alone.”

The Lucerne woman says she has no regrets about entering into a relationship with the convicted killer. “My friendship with Robert E. Smith has enriched my whole family,” she says.


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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR