- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

Death penalty opponents will rally today to mark the first World Day Against the Death Penalty, despite a similar premiere last year.

“This event will reinforce and strengthen the international movement for the universal abolition of the death penalty,” said a statement from the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which also sponsored the first “first” World Day on Nov. 20.

Asked why there were two “firsts,” the U.S. director of Amnesty International’s anti-death-penalty effort, Sue Gunawardena-Vaughn, said, “This is the first time that all the major organizations have come together. This is a day when internationally we can express solidarity … call on governments that still have not abolished the death penalty to do so.”

She said events in 45 U.S. states center on a National Weekend of Faith involving 400 religious communities — including last night’s scheduled seminar at Howard University School of Divinity — to discuss human rights aspects of executing criminals who murdered at age 16 or 17.

Some 60 cities took part in the 2002 World Day, lighting public monuments, to show their objections.

This year, the European Union and the Council of Europe officially lent influence to cities, national governments, academics and religious groups seeking in part to influence the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently has looked abroad for guidance.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that a single judge cannot hand down a death sentence. It has also banned the death penalty for mentally disabled people,” said Michel Taube, president of the coalition and a longtime European activist on the issue.

“Every Fourth of July we celebrate the fact that we do not let Europe tell us what to do,” countered Kent Scheidegger, of the Sacramento, Calif.-based Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a leading proponent of tough criminal laws.

CJLF President Michael Rushford accused the European Union of using its control over access to trade preferences to bully nations like Turkey into policies that result in more murders.

“It is interesting that the EU view of morality is to blackmail other nations into sacrificing the lives of innocent people for trade preferences,” Mr. Rushford said.

He contradicted European claims that the world trend is away from executions and said that even in some nations that have no death penalty — such as Australia, Great Britain, Georgia, the Philippines, Jamaica, Mexico and South Africa — public opinion or the leadership supports changing that.

The U.S. Supreme Court cited a brief filed by the European Union in this year’s decision outlawing the execution of convicted killers who are retarded, said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington. Mr. Dieter said the court also took into account foreign opinion in approving use of racial preferences by governments and legalizing homosexual sodomy.

“I think in all these very recent decisions there is at least a reference to international opinion, if not deference to what is at least an acknowledgment of accepted practice elsewhere,” Mr. Dieter said.

Amnesty International took much the same approach.

“The Supreme Court is not living in an insulated, isolationist world anymore. We’re living a globalized society now and when you’re looking at evolving standards of decency you’re looking at a totality of factors … what informs society’s mores and values,” said Miss Gunawardena-Vaughn.

Sponsors say more than 3,000 people a year are executed in 31 countries. In the United States, 842 killers were executed from 1976 through April 1, according to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which said 3,525 others remain on state and federal death rows.

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