With papal prodding, Guatemala may end executions

This week, President Portillo sent a proposal to Congress that would eliminate capital punishment.

In the wake of Pope John Paul II's departure from the Americas, the stage has been set for a major national debate on the death penalty in Guatemala.

Days before the pope was set to arrive here to canonize Central America's first saint, the Vatican delivered a letter to President Alfonso Portillo, requesting a moratorium on executions. Within hours of the pope's arrival Mr. Portillo one-upped him, formally asking Congress to abolish the country's nearly two-centuries-old practice of capital punishment.

Along with Cuba, Guatemala is the only country in the Spanish-speaking Americas to maintain the death penalty. A handful of countries in the English-speaking Caribbean, including mainland countries Belize and Guyana, maintain it for civil crimes, as does the US. Many countries can apply it during wartime or if they declare martial law.

The news has been welcomed by activists here and abroad who are increasingly worried about Guatemala's human-rights record. They hope the pope's recent visit can help persuade Congress and the people of this crime-ravaged country to translate the president's request into law.

"This is going to cause a great polemic in Guatemala," says Luis Ramirez, executive director of the Institute for Comparative Penal Studies.

"The pope's discourse is provocative and buoyed by a humanitarian, moral, and Christian vision, which coincides with that of the human rights movement. Hopefully it can serve to influence the conscience of those in government and the traditional sectors that have supported the death penalty," he says.

Currently there are some 36 people in Guatemala sentenced to death by lethal injection – although five are fugitives of justice after a jail break last year. All of those awaiting execution are men, as women are exempt from the death penalty.

"Executions in the region are extremely rare ... and the worldwide trend is definitely moving towards eliminating [the death penalty]. During the 1990s an average of three countries abolished it each year," says Piers Bannister of Amnesty International, which advocates global elimination of the practice.

This is not the first time Portillo has brought up the possibility of abolishing capital punishment, despite the fact that two people have been executed during his administration. His spokesman, Byron Barrera, says that the president is an abolitionist, but has not been able to follow through on promises to push for elimination until now.

"He wouldn't have taken this initiative if it weren't for the pope's request because the majority of the people support the death penalty," says Mr. Barrera. "What has weighed in here is the pope's request."

Although there have been no recent polls on the subject, and the issue has not yet been the subject of a major national debate, experts say previous polls always revealed that an overwhelming majority of Guatemalans supported the death penalty.

Some here hope that the pope's message in this largely Catholic country – still buzzing from his visit – could change that. And if it does, and capital punishment is abolished, it could have ramifications well beyond Guatemala's borders.

"Every time another country abolishes the death penalty it makes the United States more isolated on the issue" says Mr. Bannister. "And, increasingly, the countries left with it are not, for the most part, the US's allies."

Experts on Guatemala at Amnesty International say Portillo's initiative could be aimed at giving a makeover to a tarnished human rights record, which has been a concern for international aid donors. European nations give significant aid to Guatemala and are against the death penalty.

Guatemala has had the death penalty since its independence from Spain in 1821, although there have been a number of periods when the practice was essentially suspended. Executions are administered by lethal injection, which replaced the firing squad in 1997, and are televised.

A rash of executions took place in the early 1980s during the military dictatorship of Efrain Rios Montt – today the president of the Congress. Pope John Paul II made a similar request to Mr. Rios Montt before his visit here in 1983, asking him to pardon the men awaiting imminent execution. In stark contrast to the response received this time, the government proceeded with numerous executions hours before the pope's plane touched down.

In the subsequent years, until 1996, the practice of executions tapered off. An increase of executions after 1996 coincided with a transition to peace after a 36-year civil war. With the signing of the peace accords in 1996, the military lost power and authority in many areas of the country, and the fledgling civilian police force was slow to consolidate itself, creating a security vacuum and an increase in crime.

Victims of violent crimes demanded stricter punishments. The heightened sense of insecurity also led the Congress to approve a controversial measure allowing executions in cases of kidnapping even when the victim isn't killed.

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