Europeans press the US to end the death penalty

With 37 prisoners executed last year, the United States is among the top five countries that still have the death penalty.

The United States does not often find itself in a league with China, Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.

But as international human rights groups and a number of countries, particularly in the European Union [EU], prepare to mark World Day Against the Death Penalty Saturday, that list of the five countries where nearly all of 2008's executions were carried out is where the US finds itself.

Proponents of abolishing the death penalty worldwide say the global trend is in their favor, and they claim the march of countries putting an end to executions is accelerating.

But even though a large majority of known executions carried out last year were in China, the US remains a key target of the abolition campaign as a country that in most other instances is seen sharing values with other Western powers.

"The death penalty is being progressively abolished worldwide, and at an accelerating pace," says Sweden's ambassador to the United States Jonas Hafström, who joined European Union officials in Washington Friday to promote a global focus on ending the death penalty.

Noting that 139 countries – more than two-thirds of the world total – have abolished the practice, Ambassador Hafström adds that more than 80 percent of known executions last year were carried out in five countries, including the US.

Of 2,390 known executions in 2008, according to Amnesty International, 1,178 took place in China, while the US counted 37. That number was still enough to put the US on Amnesty's top-five list.

European officials say the point of abolition events in Washington is not to single out the US, but to further the EU's goal of achieving a global end to the death penalty.

"This is not to point fingers at the US – this is a commitment worldwide," says Stig Berglind, press counselor for the Embassy of Sweden.

Still, EU officials emphasize the growing number of cases in the US where prisoners on death row have been exonerated and released based on new evidence or investigative techniques not available at the time of their trials.

"Miscarriages of justice are inevitable in any legal system, and any miscarriage of justice that results in the death penalty is irreversible," says John Bruton, the EU's ambassador to the US.

In its annual report on the death penalty and executions worldwide, Amnesty International reports that in 2008 four prisoners facing the death penalty in the US were released on grounds of newly determined innocence, bringing to more than 120 the number of such cases in the US since 1975.

Amnesty also reports that the number of death sentences handed down in the US has continued to fall since a peak in the mid-1990s. Still, it notes the widely varying use of the death penalty among states, with Texas regularly topping the list of executions carried out. In 2008, Texas counted 18 of the 37 executions carried out in nine states.


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