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Swiss death penalty opponents keep campaigning

Switzerland consigned its guillotine to the museum in 1942

(Keystone)

Ministers of the Council of Europe, along with the Swiss justice minister, Ruth Metzler, have unanimously adopted a resolution calling for the complete abolition of the death penalty.

Saturday's decision, taken in Rome to mark the 50th anniversary of the organisation, comes 60 years after Switzerland abolished capital punishment.

Hans Vollenweider bears a dubious distinction in Swiss history. In October 1940 he was the country's last criminal to be executed, after a prison escape and murder spree the previous year. The death penalty was abolished in 1942.

The campaign to abolish capital punishment in Switzerland already had a long history before Vollenweider walked to the guillotine. In 1848 the constitution of the newly founded Swiss Confederation banned the death penalty for political offences.

Seven of the country's cantons, which had control over their own penal codes, abolished it entirely 30 years later. Between the two World Wars the Swiss parliament came out in favour of a new penal code, giving control to the Confederation, and proposed including a ban on the death penalty.

The new code was approved by the Swiss people in 1938, and came into force four years later.

However, as World War Two raged around neutral Switzerland's borders, the military penal code was toughened to allow executions for a variety of offences, from spying to looting. Seventeen Swiss were executed by firing squad under these measures, the last in 1944.

Several of those condemned to death were social outcasts, tried with little evidence and shot as a warning to others. As wartime memories receded, opponents of capital punishment launched a fight in the 1970s to remove the death penalty from the military code.

After a series of setbacks, with parliament refusing to consider the issue, the campaigners scored a success in the 1980s, with a reform of the code being put to a popular vote. Their resulting success in the referendum saw Switzerland fully abolitionist by 1992, when the legal change came into force.

In 1986 Switzerland had ratified a protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights, promising not to reintroduce capital punishment for civilian offences. But after the 1992 reform the next step for the campaigners was to set in stone the total abolition of the death penalty.

The revision of the Swiss constitution in 1999 presented them with an opportunity. They managed to get abolition included as a clause in the new document.

Since the revised constitution came into force on January 1, 2000, Switzerland has become one of a group of 70 countries worldwide that have fully abolished the death penalty.

Lukas Labhardt, of the Swiss section of the human rights organisation Amnesty International, has been fighting against the death penalty, both at home and abroad, for most of his career. Amnesty works against capital punishment worldwide, with themed campaigns focusing on countries like China, Iran, and the United States.

Together with other human rights groups, the organisation has been developing an Internet-based campaign to tie in with the US presidential elections. A cyber-petition has already collected over a million signatures, and will be presented to the election winner in December.

Both leading candidates in the election say they support the death penalty. Texas, governed by the Republican candidate, George W. Bush - nicknamed the "Texecutioner" by death penalty opponents - leads the US capital punishment table.

The Democrat hopeful, Al Gore, also says he sees no reason for an end to executions, having every confidence that justice is being done.

Labhardt is far from optimistic that the US will move towards rapid abolition, and the Amnesty campaign is chiefly focused on getting a moratorium on upcoming executions. He says that the US system encourages politicians at all levels to adopt a tough, vote-winning stance on crime, even at the risk of sending innocents to their deaths.

But he notes that the global tide is running in favour of abolition.

"On top of the 70 fully abolitionist countries, there are 30 more that are abolitionist for ordinary crimes - non-military offences for example - and then a group of de facto abolitionists, who haven't executed anyone for about 10 years. There are 90 so-called retentionist countries, so the abolitionists are in the majority," he says.

"Over the last decades three countries per year have given up the death penalty, compared to only around one per year in the 1970s and 1980s."

Labhardt's opposition to the death penalty is rooted in his view that it breaches a fundamental human right: the right to life, which is independent of the nature of the crime committed.

Furthermore, he believes the years spent on Death Row awaiting execution - the average in the United States is 11 - during which the prisoner is normally kept in a tiny cell twenty-four hours a day, constitute a peculiar form of torture.

Anger at racial and social bias also plays a part in his opposition. A black murderer whose victim is white is far more likely to be executed than his white counterpart whose victim is black, particularly in the southern states.

Poor defendants are often assigned court attorneys who may be barely competent to practice, and people are convicted on flimsy evidence.

"What's especially shocking is the number of juvenile offenders on Death Row," says Labhardt. "The US is one of only two countries in the world which have refused to ratify the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child; the other is Somalia."

"This is because the law in the some of the US death penalty states allows juveniles to be tried as adults. You have 16 year-olds getting sentenced to death, when they've never had a single chance in life, and there have been cases where, after years on Death Row, they've actually fully reformed, but are still killed."

"There's even talk of lowering the age of adult criminal responsibility in some states to around 14," he says.

He says other common failures of the US system include not allowing arrested foreign nationals access to legal advice from their embassies, despite commitments under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic rights.

Labhardt also says the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent fails to stand up to analysis. Canada opted for abolition in the 1980s, and its murder rate dropped; the same is true for those 12 US states that do not use it.

Despite his frustrations at the flaws in the penal system of one of the world's largest democracies, and in other retentionist countries, Labhardt remains convinced of the importance of campaigning.

"We have to show those politicians that are ignoring the worldwide pressure to reform that this pressure is still there, and is actually growing. Doing nothing is no way to bring about change."

by Jonathan Fowler


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