Fox echoes world on the death penalty
International Herald Tribune , Friday, August 16, 2002
WASHINGTON The unexpected cancellation by the president of Mexico of his visit to President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch – in a blunt objection to the execution of a Mexican national – has given Bush his highest-level indication yet of the breadth and depth of near-global opposition to the death penalty in America.
Over strenuous objections from Mexico and the European Union, Javier Suarez Medina was put to death Wednesday in Texas for the murder of an undercover policeman in Dallas in 1988. A few hours after the execution, a spokesman for President Vicente Fox of Mexico said, “It would be inappropriate, in these lamentable circumstances, to go ahead with the visit to Texas.” The cancellation “is an unequivocal signal of rejection of the execution,” said the spokesman, Rodolfo Elizondo.
U.S. officials sought to minimize the cancellation, which may in part have reflected an effort by Fox, who faces political challenges at home, to demonstrate greater independence from Bush. But analysts said the signal was clear.
On Thursday, Richard Wilson, professor of international human rights law at American University in Washington, called the cancellation “a fairly blunt message to our president about the feelings of the Mexican people, and one with important foreign policy ramifications.”
“The U.S. finds itself increasingly isolated on this issue,” he said.
The visit had been planned for Aug. 26-28.
Mexico does not have the death penalty and refuses to extradite people to countries that do if they face capital punishment there.
The White House emphasized Thursday that the strong bilateral ties and close friendship between the men would not suffer. A White House spokesman, Jimmy Orr, said Bush “respects President Fox, and the two have an excellent professional relationship and a strong friendship that reflects the deep bonds between their two countries.”
But the meaning of Fox’s gesture was clear, particularly coming from a close friend, analysts said. Bush made relations with Fox and Mexico a centerpiece of his early foreign policy, and for foreign leaders an invitation to Bush’s ranch is considered a diplomatic prize.
Fox had spoken to Governor Rick Perry of Texas and directed his foreign secretary to contact the U.S. secretary of state, Colin Powell. But the State Department did not intervene in the case.
Mexico objected strongly and repeatedly that when Suarez was arrested, he was not notified immediately of his right to consular access. This would have been a violation of the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. That treaty requires that arresting authorities immediately tell foreigners whom they have arrested of the right to receive assistance from their consulates.
At his trial in 1989, Suarez never denied that he had killed the undercover policeman. He said in court, “I thought he was just a regular drug dealer.”
The Mexican consul in Dallas, despite three earlier attempts to make contact, was not able to reach Suarez until the day after he was sentenced to death, his lawyers say.
The execution late Wednesday dominated headlines across Mexico; national radio carried reports direct from Texas.
The United States is one of only a handful of countries that retain the death penalty. To many people abroad the death penalty has come to symbolize a rough-edged American justice out of step with the modern world.
The issue has taken on salience in recent months because of the possibility that the United States might seek the death penalty against foreign nationals, some with European passports, accused of complicity in the Sept. 11 attacks.
When Bush has traveled abroad, anti-death-penalty protests have regularly greet him. They did in Germany in May, for instance. When the United States lost its seat on the United Nations Human Rights Commission last year, the death penalty was cited as one reason.
Other countries, including Britain, Thailand and Canada, have lodged sharp protests when their own nationals, or dual nationals, faced being put to death in the United States.
Bush had no direct involvement in the Texas decision. But as Texas governor and since then, he has consistently defended capital punishment as a necessary tool against crime. More than 130 convicted killers were put to death in Texas while he was governor.
American public sentiment, though still strongly in favor of the death penalty, has softened amid dramatic evidence that some death-row inmates have been wrongly convicted. The national numbers of executions have leveled off, to below 100 a year, even as death sentences have risen sharply, analysts say.
Fox’s decision, announced at a hastily called news conference in Mexico City late Wednesday, caught White House officials off guard. Claire Buchan, a White House spokeswoman, said the incident, an issue for state and not federal authorities, would not damage U.S.-$ Mexican relations.
Texas is a leader among the states, along with Florida, Virginia and California, in carrying out executions. Since 1976, it is believed to have executed seven foreigners, according to the Dallas News: a Canadian, four Mexican citizens, a citizen of the Dominican Republic and a Vietnamese citizen.
Fourteen countries, most of them Latin American but including Spain and Poland, had petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court on Suarez’s behalf.
In some cases, noted Wilson of American University, such foreign attempts at intercession have backfired, angering parole board members. Two similar appeals in Texas, both citing the Vienna Convention, failed to save the lives of two condemned inmates, Stanley Faulder, a Canadian, and Miguel Flores, a Mexican.
But Wilson says that the widespread foreign opposition to capital punishment is being felt in the American system – notably on the Supreme Court. Referring to a Supreme Court finding June 20 that the execution of mentally retarded inmates was “cruel and unusual punishment” in the meaning of the Constitution, Wilson said, “I think the voice of Europe on this issue really affected the court.”
A six-justice majority found that “in assessing what is cruel and unusual, we should look to world opinion” and not just to U.S. opinion, and they cited the brief of the European Union in concluding that it was unusual, Wilson said. The Suarez case, by focusing attention on the Vienna Convention, also pointed to the particular conflicts that arise, or gaps that exist, between federal authorities, responsible for carrying out such international obligations, and local and state officials, who are often less aware of or concerned about those obligations.
Mark Warren, a specialist in the death penalty who was retained by Suarez’s legal team, said that the failure of timely notification of consular rights was common. Sometimes that occurs because the arrested, who may not be in the country legally, do not want to call attention to that fact. But often local officials are unaware, unconcerned, or overworked and fail to make the effort, he said.
California is one of the few states, if not the only one, to have included a requirement of timely notification in state law. And New York City is one of the few cities to include that requirement in its police manuals, said Warren, who heads a group called Human Rights Research in Ottawa. But to the extent awareness of that commitment has spread, Warren added, it is because of a massive effort by the U.S. State Department to contact local and state authorities and explain the dictates of the Vienna Convention to them.
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