World Congress Against Death Penalty Opens

Leaders to Seek Abolition, or at Least a Moratorium

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STRASBOURG, France, JUNE 21, 2001 ( The Council of Europe and European Parliament are holding the first world congress against the death penalty, as calls for a halt to executions continue to rise.

Some 20 presidents of national parliaments will make a solemn appeal for the universal abolition of the death penalty or at least for a moratorium on executions. The three-day meeting here ends Saturday.

On Friday there will be an ecumenical religious meeting in the cathedral. A silent march will take place in the streets of Strasbourg on Saturday.

Spaniard José Joaquín Martínez is fast becoming the symbolic figure of the meeting. He spent three years in death row in a Florida prison, waiting to be executed for his alleged role in two murders in the United States. Two weeks ago, a court in Tampa declared him innocent, after a new trial revealed many irregularities in the first trial.

Martínez is fortunate. One of his cellmates died of cancer two years ago, after spending 13 years in prison waiting to be executed. Last year he was declared innocent posthumously.

On Tuesday, Rome´s Colosseum was illuminated to celebrate Martínez´s release. This gesture has taken place for the past two years, whenever a country abolishes the death penalty or a death row prisoner gains clemency.

Martínez, who was sentenced in 1997 to death, has now been declared innocent. During a meeting Tuesday organized by the Sant´Egidio Community in Rome, Martínez explained that he would have died in the electric chair but for the grass-roots effort in Spain which collected $800,000 to cover the cost of the appeal and second trial.

Sant´Egidio has launched an international campaign to appeal for a world moratorium on executions, which received John Paul II´s formal support during the Jubilee Year. To date, 3.5 million signatures have been collected in 155 countries. The community is working with European governments to present a resolution again to the U.N. General Assembly, in favor of the moratorium.

By 1976, 21 countries had abolished the death penalty. The total now stands at 76. Chile is the latest country to abolish capital punishment, and was publicly congratulated Monday by John Paul II.

A recent report by the Italian «Touch Not Cain» association said 2,000 people were executed last year, more than half in China.

On June 25, two days after the conclusion of the Strasbourg congress, the parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe will request the United States and Japan to decree a moratorium on executions before January 2003, on pain of losing their observer status in that institution.

The threat is symbolic, since only governments can pronounce such sanctions, but it is in keeping with the rules of the organization, which exacts from its new members a commitment to abolish the death penalty.

None of the 43 member states of the Council of Europe now apply the death penalty. Only Turkey and Russia include it in their legislation.

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