- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 1, 2004

NEW YORK — The International Court of Justice ruled yesterday that the United States “must” review the convictions and death sentences of 51 Mexicans in U.S. jails, saying local authorities had failed to consult Mexican consulates in violation of international law.

The Mexican government had petitioned The Hague-based world court to scrap the convictions and order retrials for the Mexicans, who would receive its legal advice this time.

William Taft, a lawyer representing the United States before the court, had argued that the prisoners received fair trials and that any remedy “must be left to the United States.”

International Court of Justice rulings are usually considered “legally binding,” but the court has no enforcement power, nor does the court have any authority to order an American state to review a sentence or a conviction. This leaves it to the U.S. government to decide what to make, if anything, of the decision.

If the court is not satisfied with the response, it might refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council “for appropriate action,” according to the ICJ statute. But it is not clear what that would mean, either.

In one earlier, highly publicized case, the German government in 2001 tried to win a stay of execution in the case of two German brothers who were convicted of murder during an armed robbery. The two had been raised in the United States and never had requested consular contact.

The international court nevertheless found for the German government in a case that Washington dismissed as an attempt to hold a referendum on capital punishment. Arizona executed one brother before the court issued its final ruling and executed the other shortly afterward.

Two years earlier, the Paraguayan government tried to win a commutation for an admitted rapist and murderer, but Virginia refused to comply after a personal plea by Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright.

In a written argument to the court, the United States had argued that Mexico’s request for new trials would be a “radical intrusion” into the U.S. justice system, contradicting laws and customs practiced in every city and state in the nation.

In his decision yesterday, presiding Judge Shi Jiuyong of China said the United States “should provide, by means of its own choosing, meaningful review of the conviction and sentence” of the 51 Mexicans.

Judge Shi said the review could, in most cases, be carried out under the normal appeals process. But three of the 51 defendants have exhausted all appeals, and in their cases, he said, the government should provide a further opportunity for review. A 52nd Mexican was found to have been convicted in conformity with international law.

In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli suggested, without saying how, that the convictions might be reviewed as ordered by the court.

“This is a 61-page ruling, a very complex ruling, and the short answer is that we will study it carefully,” he told reporters. “Let’s look at the decision, and we’ll decide, based on studying it, how we can go about implementing it.”

At The Hague, Mexico’s ambassador to the Netherlands, Juan Gomez Robledo, said, “Mexico was not vindicated. The rule of international law was vindicated. Of course we are confident the United States will fully comply with the ruling.”

Mexico, he added, “doesn’t contest the United States’ right as a sovereign country to impose the death penalty for the most grave crimes,” but wants to make sure Mexico’s citizens aren’t abused by a foreign legal system that they don’t always understand.

The 1964 Vienna Convention calls on all signatories to contact the local consulate of a foreign national shortly after his or her arrest. This is especially important, according to diplomats, when there is a language barrier, the charges are particularly complex or the death penalty is a possibility.

State and Justice Department officials have acknowledged that local law-enforcement and court systems failed to notify consulates in the cases at issue yesterday, saying authorities usually are unaware of the requirement. The Mexican prisoners in this case were tried in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Florida, Nevada, Oklahoma, Ohio, Oregon and Texas.

David Sands in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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