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Countries Condemn Penalty of Death

February 22, 1987|Gerald H. Gottlieb | Gerald H. Gottlieb is a Los Angeles attorney.

West Germany attached a condition to considering a recent U.S. request for extradition of an alleged terrorist charged with murder. The Germans told the State Department that they would decline to grant extradition unless the United States would promise not to impose the death penalty. America so promised.

The Federal Republic of Germany, which years ago abolished the death penalty, declines to cooperate in any activity by other countries that might enable imposition of that penalty. The extradition episode points up a significant difference between the United States and other nations that Americans have long considered as "part of the family." Although we Americans consider ourselves, along with other democratically governed peoples, as possessing the bonds of community--holding the same general values and cooperating to fulfill the same aspirations--in one particular we are different, indeed almost unique. For among the world's democracies, the United States stands almost alone in invoking the avenging "eye for an eye" archaism, punishing murder by allowing the society to kill the murderer.

There is here a striking irony, of the United States requesting that Germany extradite an accused for possible extermination, and West Germany refusing unless the United States promised to refrain from taking that life. It is we who hold nearly 2,000 prisoners for the extermination engines. It is we who now practice the idea of selective obliteration.

The pace at which the international community of democracies is determining that the death penalty be abandoned is astounding. Amnesty International advised, in 1982, that 26 countries did not permit imposition of the death penalty for any crime. Within Europe alone, 12 nations--Austria, Denmark, Finland, West Germany, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom--had totally abolished the penalty. In 1982, another 15 countries permitted the use of the death penalty only for "exceptional" crimes, i.e., crimes under military law or crimes committed in exceptional circumstances such as wartime.

However, capital punishment was widespread, even in the democracies, in 1982. Two large federated countries, the United States and Australia, were split jurisdictionally; some member states kept the death penalty while others had abolished it.

And in several European countries, the laws then provided the death penalty even for ordinary crimes: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, Roumania, Turkey, the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia--also Ireland, Belgium and Greece.

The new Amnesty International 1986 report demonstrates some spectacular ongoing changes. Australia, in 1985, totally abolished the death penalty, leaving the United States as the only federated country with divided jurisdictions on that subject. More broadly, starting from 1975, the new report advises that in "recent years, at least one country a year has abolished the death penalty in law or, having earlier done so for ordinary offenses, has gone on to abolish it for all offenses."

In 1975, Mexico abolished the death penalty for ordinary offenses. In 1976, Canada abolished it for ordinary offenses. In 1977, Portugal abolished it for all offenses. In 1978, Spain abolished it for ordinary offenses. In 1979, Luxembourg, Nicaragua, and Norway abolished it for all offenses. In that same year, Brazil and Fiji abolished it for ordinary offenses. (Brazil had abolished the death penalty in 1882 but reintroduced it in 1969 while under military rule.) In 1980, Peru abolished it for ordinary offenses. In 1981, France abolished it for all offenses. In 1982, the Netherlands abolished it for all offenses. In 1983, Cyprus and El Salvador abolished it for ordinary offenses.

Argentina had abolished the death penalty for all offenses in 1921 and again in 1972 but reintroduced it in 1976 following a military coup. In 1984, Argentina abolished it for all offenses.

The report also presents evidence that while the democracies proceed toward abolition, the tyrannies maintain and even accelerate capital inflictions:

"An international treaty prohibiting the death penalty in peacetime came into force in Western Europe after it was ratified by five countries (Austria, Denmark, Luxembourg, Spain and Sweden, since joined by France). Nine other countries have signed the treaty but not yet ratified it."

But:

"Countries still putting people to death in 1985 included South Africa (137 confirmed executions), Saudi Arabia (at least 45), and Pakistan (at least 57)."

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