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Swiss target death penalty on human rights day

Swiss activists say there are alternatives to capital punishment

(Keystone)

Swiss activists are using international human rights day to call for an end to the death penalty.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International, and Switzerland's churches singled out the United States, Japan and Saudi Arabia for criticism.

"The death penalty is not a solution," is the motto of the campaign.

"Executions shouldn't be used by the state or victims as a means of avenging themselves," said Daniel Garcia of Amnesty International Switzerland.

"Only God has the right of life and death over a person," said Muriel Beck of the Swiss Federation of Protestant Churches.

The US has been regularly criticised by human rights groups. They say that on one hand Americans profess to be defenders of human rights while on the other they do not hesitate to apply capital punishment.

Executions in the US reached their highest level in 1999, with 98 prisoners being put to death. Last year, 66 people were executed.

Façade

"Their commitment to human rights is more of a façade than a deep-rooted belief," said Beck.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) point out that capital punishment in the US is a travesty of justice because innocent people, such as the mentally disturbed, are condemned to death. They add that whole process is tainted with racism, since blacks and other minorities are far more likely to be condemned to death than whites.

Beck adds that the American concept of justice is very different to the European one.

"In American penal law, punishment is seen as the aim, not the rehabilitation of the convicted criminal," she told swissinfo. "In Europe, it's the opposite."

Condemned to death

The Swiss activists also point the finger at Japan - the other industrialised nation which routinely condemns people to death.

They say executions remain out of public view - they are considered state "secrets" - and that convicts are often hanged without their families being informed.

In terms of the number of executions, Saudi Arabia is thought to top the list with an average of two per week.

There, anyone who does not follow the tenets of Islam is at risk of being sentenced to death. Drug dealers and "witches" are regularly executed.

Trials usually last just a few minutes behind closed doors, according to Amnesty International. Convicted women are usually shot while men are beheaded.

Condemned to life

Activists say the death penalty cannot be justified under any circumstances, and that the law has a perfectly adequate alternative - namely life imprisonment.

"Society can be protected without resorting to capital punishment," said Amnesty's Garcia. "People can be sentenced to life imprisonment, so we don't need the death penalty."

That is the message Swiss NGOs and the churches are sending to the US, Japan and Saudi Arabia, through a petition demanding a moratorium on all death sentences with a view to abolishing capital punishment.

They are also marking International Human Rights Day with demonstrations, marches and debates. Preachers called for the abolition of capital punishment during services all over Switzerland.

swissinfo, Elena Altenburger

Key facts

Executions in the US in 2001: 66.
People on death row in the US in 2000: 3,593.
Executions in Saudi Arabia between 1980 and November 2002: 1,409 (source: Amnesty)

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