Belgian convict rejects clemency, turning spotlight on the nation's death sentence

A young Belgian prisoner who was sentenced to death eight months ago for killing a Brussels caf'e owner in 1982 has turned down an offer of executive clemency, touching off an intense debate here over the country's century-old legislation on capital punishment. Lawyers for Patrick de Decker say they will press the case in the Strasbourg-based Court of Human Rights in the next few weeks and demand that their client's wish to be executed by guillotine be honored.

Under Belgian law, persons tried and convicted of murder must be sentenced to death by guillotine (except in cases of crimes against the state, when the sentence must be death by firing squad). But the sentence, in fact, has not been carried out in Belgium since 1918.

Since then, countless convicted murderers have taken advantage of the King's offer of executive clemency, which automatically commutes the sentence to life imprisonment.

Last week, Mr. de Decker was offered King Baudouin's pardon in the form of an arr^ete de grace delivered to him in his Leuven prison cell.

To the surprise of everyone, including his lawyers, the young convict refused to sign the royal document, presenting the authorities with a dilemma unprecedented in Belgian history.

``I want to be executed,'' the prisoner said in a letter to his lawyers. ``I have been sentenced to death. If you sentence people to death, execute them.''

For some commentators, however, the situation is not quite so simple.

``To what extent,'' asked a Belgian newspaper last Thursday, ``can the authorities impose a pardon on a convict who has refused to accept it?'' Another newspaper called the case ``a demonstration of the absurd.''

Most analysts here say public opinion will allow the authorities no choice but to ``impose'' the pardon on the young death-row prisoner and commute his sentence to life imprisonment.

``Few Belgians favor the death penalty,'' said a television news commentator.

Other analysts have said the case will help speed along approval of longstanding proposals in Parliament to scratch capital punishment from the nation's law books.

``By refusing the royal pardon [de Decker] wanted to underscore the incoherent attitude of the national authorities [regarding capital punishment],'' said his defense lawyer, Xavier Magn'ee, pointing out that the young prisoner was unemployed and living alone before the murder three years ago.

Mr. Magn'ee continued, ``It was also a cry of despair from a young man who was rejected by society.''

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