Former death row inmates, prison guards, the families of prisoners, more than 20 ministers from around the world and some 70 diplomatic delegates, lawyers and Nobel Peace Prize winners have convened in Madrid for the 5th World Congress against the Death Penalty. “The idea is to bring together politicians and civil society so that they can talk,” said Rafael Chenuil-Hazan, director of the congress that opened on Wednesday.
“The Arab Springs have revolutionized freedom of expression in the Middle East and North Africa. It is an opportunity to place the issue of the death penalty on the table. We are very concerned by cases like that of Iran, where executions form part of political repression and are used an instrument to punish the opposition and minorities,” Chenuil-Hazan added.
Other issues on the agenda are the presence of innocent people on death row, capital punishment and minors, torture, and legal and diplomatic strategies to avoid the death penalty.
During the inaugural session Tanya Ibar, whose husband Pablo is the only Spaniard on death row in the world, emotionally read a message in which he gave his thanks for his case being studied during the conference. “The search for justice is not easy. When I hug my family and my wife, I know that at the same time the State of Florida wants to kill me.” In the message Pablo Ibar notes that his co-accused, Seth Peñalver, was released last December after his innocence was proved: neither his DNA nor fingerprints matched those of the killers, as is the case with Ibar, who has been in jail for 19 years. His family hopes that his case will be heard in the Florida Supreme Court.
I got used to executions. To me it was just a job"
Also in attendance is Jerry Givens, a former executioner in Virginia. “I got used to executions and I prepared myself mentally to do them. To me it was just a job,” he said. Now Givens is committed to the fight against the death penalty.
Souad El Khamal, whose husband and son died in the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks, said that afterward she “would have killed them with my own hands.” However, after years of hurt she has come to the conclusion that the death penalty is not the answer to grief. “My husband was a lawyer who believed in human rights. He would not have been in favor. It is not absolution.”
The participants agree that the advances made in recent decades have been significant. In the last 40 years, the number of nations to have abandoned the death penalty has risen from 20 percent to 70 percent. Nonetheless, at least 682 people were executed in 21 countries in 2012, a figure that does not include China where potentially thousands may have taken place. “We have come a long way. I think it’s incredible how much has been achieved in the 12 years since I was released,” said Joaquín José Martínez, who spent three years on death row in Florida but was later cleared of all charges.
The foreign ministers of Norway, Sweden, Spain and France – the organizing countries -- opened the congress this week with the observation that Europe, with the exception of Belarus, is a continent free of the death penalty thanks to the “political courage” of those who worked to abolish capital punishment, in some cases against the current of public opinion.
Spain’s Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo recalled the last executions on Spanish soil, in 1975, and said that Spanish society, which at that time was not in favor of abolition, at no time afterward called for its reinstatement during the darkest days of ETA or after the Al Qaeda-inspired Madrid terrorist attacks in 2004. “Nobody asked for it to be brought back. Spain is a firm defender of the abolition of capital punishment worldwide,” said García-Margallo.