What does the USA have in common with China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea? You would hardly guess, but the European Parliament stated loud and all too clear on October 2nd: those are the countries which put lots of people to death. In a long, detailed resolution, approved almost unanimously by 574 members (only 25 opposed and 39 abstained), the members from all over Europe named people on death row and threatened with execution in several countries and right there between those in Iran and Iraq were two Americans: Mumia Abu-Jamal in Pennsylvania and Troy Davis in Georgia. The delegates also voiced regret at the recent executions of Holly Wood in Alabama and Teresa Lewis in Virginia, both of whom were mentally retarded.
True, as the resolution pointed out, the USA cannot match China, which killed about 5,000 inmates last year, but it was still near the top behind Iran with 402, Iraq with at least 77, and Saudi Arabia with at least 69. In the USA the number was 52.
It was noted that 154 countries have abolished the death penalty completely or almost completely (with occasional exceptions such as for wartime treason). In Europe only Belarus has failed to do so, while the new constitution of far-off Kyrgyzstan just joined the ranks of those who generally agree, as the resolution points out, that “the death penalty is the ultimate cruel and inhuman and degrading punishment, which violates the right to life as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” and “detention conditions created by the death penalty decision amount to torture that is unacceptable to states respecting human rights.” It reports that “various studies have shown that the death penalty has no effect on trends in violent crime . . . whereas evidence shows that the death penalty affects first and foremost underprivileged people.”
After listing cases in other countries where pressure is needed, the delegates noted that “35 states in the USA still have the death penalty, although 4 of them have not held executions since 1976” and that US executions increased to 52 in 2009 even as “some states [in the USA] have moved against the death penalty through measures including a moratorium on executions or its abolition.”
Mentioning Mumia Abu-Jamal twice in the resolution indicated that people in many European countries are worried about his case (currently nearing a new sentencing hearing that may result in a fatal decision), considered emblematic of the state of American justice.
A delegate of Germany’s Left Party, Sabine Loesing, who was particularly active in getting this resolution passed, told how happy she was that so many from a wide range of political parties had voted for the resolution and added that she would see to it that the pressure on Catherine Ashton, foreign minister of the European Union, would not let up, so that Ms. Ashton raises the position of the resolution whenever she meets with leaders of states where capital punishment still prevails.
Victor Grossman, American journalist and author, is a resident of East Berlin for many years. He is the author of Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).