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Amnesty International Initiates Campaign Against Death Penalty

February 19, 1987

NEW YORK (AP) _ Amnesty International launched a campaign against the death penalty in the United States on Wednesday, calling it a ″horrifying lottery″ slanted against blacks, Southerners and the poor.

Leaders of the human rights group charged that use of capital punishment places the United States in violation of international treaties and in a shrinking number of nations that kill their citizens for committing crimes.

But speakers at a news conference, including two Nobel Peace Prize winners, said their campaign would focus on the moral aspects of the death penalty and on their belief that such violence begets violence.

″Execution is the ultimate form of cruel and inhuman punishment,″ said Ian Martin, Amnesty’s secretary general. ″When a state effectively fries a human being to death over 14 minutes, then we have entered the realm of nightmare.″

Amnesty released a report citing findings that the penalty is applied disproportionately to blacks and poor people in the South and saying those factors can play a greater role in an execution than the crime itself. It said no credible studies have found the penalty to deter crime.

Bishop Desmond Tutu the 1984 Nobel laureate, said by telephone from South Africa there is a ″clear correlation″ between the uneven application of the death sentence against blacks in his land and in the United States. The penalty ″is in fact applied in a discriminatory and inequitable manner,″ he said.

Amnesty International officials conceded that public opinion surveys in the United States have found vast support for the death penalty - more than 80 percent - and said their own poll in Florida confirmed such figures.

But Amnesty’s pollsters found great ambivalence among supporters of the penalty, especially when respondents were presented with specific facts of a case rather than asked their opinion generally, the officials said.

Americans back the penalty ″as an abstract symbol,″ said Charles Fulwood, director of Amnesty’s campaign. ″But once you present them with the reality of what that symbol means in practice, you get a different outcome.″

The group will promote its view by holding news conferences in the United States and abroad, mounting a letter-writing campaign to public officials and providing witnesses at legislative hearings.

It has targeted 16 states because of their broad use of executions or because of possible legislation, Fulwood said: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisana, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Jersey, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

Sixty-nine people have been executed in the United States since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976. At year’s end, 1,838 prisoners were on death row, and many are nearing their last appeals, a fact that prompted the Amnesty campaign, the group said.

The arbitrary way in which some of those prisoners will live while others will die, said Martin, ″turns the penalty into a horrifying lottery.″

Amnesty noted that one prisoner executed in 1985 and two in 1986 were juveniles at the time of their crimes. It charged that such executions violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, signed by the United States in 1977.

Moreover, while executions in the United States increase, an average of one nation a year has abolished capital punishment since 1975, the group said. Its leaders likened the U.S. position to a moral failure.

Once the principle that human life is sacrosanct is breached, ″all the safeguards for the protection of human rights are undermined,″ said Sean MacBride, Amnesty’s founder and a 1974 Nobel lauruate. Among other threats, he said, ″The fact that the state claims the right to take life away may well be used by others to also claim the right to take life.″

Amnesty, formed in 1961, is best known for its efforts to free political prisoners and expose torture by government agents. Its work against the death penalty, it said, is consistent with the latter goal.

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