The theme of last year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty was “Teaching Abolition” to all citizens around the world, especially to teenagers aged 14 to 18. On October 10, 2009, we were encouraged to raise awareness and educate younger people, as they represent our future. It seems difficult to alert teenagers to the reality of capital punishment, especially when living in a country where it has been abolished. I decided to focus on the topic “Juvenile Death Penalty“, more particularly in Iran, currently the world’s biggest executioner of juvenile). International human rights treaties forbid the use of capital punishment for all those under 18 at the time of the crime of which they are accused (note that in Iran, a boy who loves another boy “commits a crime”, and is therefore likely to be hanged). However, a small number of countries continue to execute juvenile. Since 1990, nine countries have executed offenders who were juveniles at the time of their crimes: The People’s Republic of China (PRC), Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, the United States and Yemen. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids capital punishment for juveniles under article 37(a), has been signed by all countries and ratified, except for Somalia and the United States.
Of course, there was not much television coverage in Germany, except for a tiny interview of an Amnesty International local representative. But later that evening, I stumbled upon a documentary about a German teenager girl, who had spent almost a year in a Texan family. Obviously, this documentary would have be watched by at least all of her teenagers friends in Germany, and probably by many others. The USA is a fascinating destination for young Europeans, and we know Texas i.e. through the tv series “Dallas” and because of a certain US President. But who remembers that GWB authorized 152 executions in his 6 years of governorship (that’s an average of 25 per year, or 2 per month. Every month, during 6 years!)? Nothing has really changed in “The Lone Star State”, as a matter of fact, its new Governor already has presided over 210 executions, and counting. So basically: that young German girl, who flew to Texas and lived there for nearly a year, who had to go to church on Sunday morning with the family, who enjoyed BBQ parties by the pool and shopping sprees in local malls… did she know that Texas executed several human beings while she visited? Did her family and friends, back in Europe, know about it? There was absolutely no mention of it in the documentary. Everything was great in Texas, and she was seen weeping as she boarded her return plane. Do you think it could have been a good opportunity to “Teach Abolition” to this girl, to her friends, and to all teenagers who watched television that day? Yes. Maybe next time? It will be on October 10, 2010.
Ever heard of the concept “Export democracy to other parts of the world”? Well, at least three Americans did and The New York Times wrote a story about them. Like the German teenager, these three American evangelical Christians also took a plane. They flew to Uganda in March 2009 and gave a series of talks on The dangers of homosexuality, on how to convert gays into heterosexuals, and explained why HIV-positive homosexuals often contaminate teenagers. Then they left.
A month later, on April 20, 2009, the first draft of an Anti-Homosexuality Bill was created. The proposed legislation defines a new crime of “aggravated homosexuality” for those who engage in sex with someone under the age of 18, who are HIV-positive, who is a “repeat offender” (so broadly defined as to include anyone who has had a relationship with more than one person, or who had sex with the same person more than once), or who had sex with a disabled person (consensual or not). The penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”: death by hanging.
These “experts on homosexuality” are: Scott Lively, a Holocaust revisionist missionary who has written several books against homosexuality, including The Pink Swastika; Caleb Lee Brundidge, a self-described former gay black man who leads “healing seminars” (think about the impact of a “former” gay black man before a crowd of Ugandans); and Don Schmierer, a board member of Exodus International, whose mission is “mobilizing the body of Christ to minister grace and truth to a world impacted by homosexuality”. They were helped by many others, notably by members of the American secretive group The Family (sometimes known as The Fellowship). There are some very interesting names in this family, well-known amongst US politicians. Do you remember South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford? Yes, the man who is against same-sex marriage and civil unions, and who voted against allowing gay couples adopt children, but who – when spotted – admitted having an extramarital affair. You know, the man who not only is in favour of a harsher death penalty, but who, as Governor, has sole authority to grant clemency. Well, he nonetheless authorized 14 executions since 2003.
Seems to me like these “Christians” really read their Bible. And they especially understood the Golden Rule, the most essential basis for the modern concept of human rights: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
I increasingly admire abolitionists, especially those who live in countries without capital punishment. What have they to gain from entering this battle? Why does it matter to them that, somewhere far away, in Texas or in China, human beings are locked up and treated worse than animals before being executed? Why do they spend some much time, so much energy, so much money, to save these men and women? Why do they tirelessly write to US governors before an execution, pleading for mercy? Why do they vote in polls and sign petitions against capital punishment in Ohio or in Saudi Arabia? I guess each and every one of us has specific and personal reasons. Hopefully it has to do with the conviction of being connected to other human beings, people we may never meet, but who also live on the same planet and who breathe the same air. Hopefully it has to do with empathy, understanding and sharing the feelings of another or even sometimes with sympathy, to suffer with another. I have never met Connie Wright in real life, but I vividly, painfully, recall that evening of October 30, 2008. Her husband, Gregory Wright was scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas. I hoped and prayed for a stay, I stayed up late and imagined the horror that was taking place thousands of kilometers away. I have never met Terri Been, whose brother Jeff Wood is sentenced to death under the Texas Law of Parties. Jeff was not the shooter in the crime and could not anticipate that a murder would occur (the actual shooter has already been executed by the State of Texas). How can one accept the injustice and cruelty of this law? How can one not be in sympathy with Terri and her children as well as with the victims of crimes? They all are victims, theyall suffer. Can you imagine that, because of this ordeal, the organization KADP was founded by a group of children from Jeff’s family (yes, children!), who know that the death penalty is wrong? Instead of playing and living the life that one would wish for any child, they visit Texas death row and fight a monstrous creature that may well take their family member away. I have never met Carolina Soza-Gonzalez but I rejoiced when her husband Gabriel Gonzalez saw his death penalty sentence commuted to life. I have never met Tony Medina, but I am enraged when I read the transcripts of his trials, when I see how he obviously was wrongfully convicted and how, since 1996, he fights to prove his innocence and to come out – alive – from Texas death row!
These are just a few examples. There are over 3,500 men and women sitting on death row in the USA and 28,000 worldwide. There are thousands of abolitionists around the globe. I don’t think we have something more that other human beings. Maybe we let empathy speak louder in ourselves. It doesn’t take much to get in the fight: once you have signed a petition, you have shown your human side. The “mornings after” an execution are difficult days for us all. Yet, it gives us more strength, more determination. Then we go back to the battlefield. We all have a role to play, although we all fight with different weapons. But weall are crucially important. Do not under-estimate your power if you “only” sign a petition or donate $5. You play a necessary part in the fight against the death penalty. It took over 17,000 people contacting Governor Perry and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles to make a difference for Kenneth Foster, whose death sentence under the Law of Parties was commuted in 2007. True, sometimes, even with 17,134 signatures on a petition (the very first one I signed) and more than 500 personal letters from around the globe, it still does not prevent Texas from executing human beings like Reginald Perkins, who had an IQ of 68 (On June 20, 2002,the US Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling ending the execution of those with mental retardation. In Atkins v. Virginia, the Court held that it is a violation of the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel unusual punishment to execute death row inmates with mental retardation. Generally, mental retardation encompasses everyone with a score of 70 or below. Additionally, it includes some individuals with scores in the low 70s – and even mid-70s -, depending on the nature of the testing information.). But you never know how important your vote or your signature may be. Therefore, I urge you to please positively respond to invitations from abolitionists.
The fight happens everywhere and you are needed everywhere, not only in Texas and in all American states where capital punishment is in use, but also for example in Indonesia, where Serge Atlaoui, a Frenchman, is fighting for his life. There, also, you are needed! And “every little helps”. If we were not with them, US abolitionists would be fighting alone. Furthermore, it is vital for us all to have access to information and education about capital punishment. Most of the time, when you clearly explain why capital punishment should be abolished, you open the eyes and the heart of potentially new supporters. Teaching abolition helps recruit new abolitionists, who sometimes have nothing to do with countries where executions take place. They are the new soldiers, they need to be trained and respected too.
I am a fairly young abolitionist myself (although I have always been against the death penalty, as far back as I can remember). Therefore, from February 24 to 26, 2010, I shall be volunteering for Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort, the organizers of the 4th World Congress Against the Death Penalty. I am going to Geneva to learn more, to understand how to fight better. Don’t you dare telling me that I should spend this money in Texas instead because this is where the fight is happening. Let me go my way too. You do not know how the activist in me will grow from this experience and how much more powerful I will be afterwards. I am proud that my native city will welcome over a thousand people for three days of international convention, and I especially look forward to hearing:
- Senator Robert Badinter, former Minister of Justice who abolished the death penalty in France (my second citizenship) on September 31, 1981.
- Joaquín José Martínez, a Spanish national wrongfully sentenced to death in Florida, who remained on death row for 4 years before being cleared and released. A private meeting with Joaquín Martínez was organized for me in Paris, thanks to Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, Chairperson of the international committee for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and representative of the TCADP at the steering committee of the World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. Sandrine Ageorges-Skinner, wife of Hank Skinner, currently on Texas death row and scheduled to be executed on February 24, 2010 (on the very day of the congress’ opening) works tirelessly against this execution, but also against the Uganda death penalty bill, and executions of Iranian juveniles or homosexuals. Unfortunately, Mr. Martínez got ill and I will have to wait until I meet him in Geneva.
- Bill Pelke, President and Cofounder of Journey of Hope… from Violence to Healing, USA. On April 29, 2009, I attended a conference in Hamburg and was fortunate enough to meet Bill Pelke (A retired steelworker, Bill has dedicated his life to working for abolition of the death penalty. He shares his story of forgiveness and healing, and how he came to realize that he did not need to see someone else die in order to heal from his grandmother’s death. On May 14, 1985, Ruth Pelke, a Bible teacher, was murdered by four teenage girls. Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen-years-old at the time of the murder. Bill Pelke, after supporting her death sentence engaged on an international campaign to save Cooper’s life, who is still incarcerated but no longer in death row.). Also present that evening were Terri Steinberg (Mother of Justin Wolfe, currently on death row in Virginia since 2001, at the age of 20, for a murder he neither committed nor was present at!) and Ray Krone (A death row survivor, Ray Krone spent more than a decade in prison, some of it on Arizona death row, before DNA testing cleared his name. He is the 100th former death row inmate freed because of innocence since the reinstatement of capital punishment in the United States in 1976. He was the twelfth death row inmate whose innocence has been proven through postconviction DNA testing. Prior to his arrest, Krone had no previous criminal record, had been honorably discharged from the military, and had worked in the postal service for seven years.) This event was my first encounter with the reality of the death penalty in the USA. It was incredibly instrumental in helping me to understand capital punishment and its mechanisms, its flaws, and how crucial it is to fight it until it has been abolished.
- Keiko Chiba (attendance tbc), Japan Minister of Justice and abolitionist, who may well play a decisive role in getting rid of the death penalty in her country.
- Shirin Ebadi, Iranian Lawyer, 2003 Peace Nobel Prize.
- Governor Bill Richardson (attendance tbc) of New Mexico (USA), who was brave enough to abolish the death penalty in his state in 2009.
- Sister Helen Prejean, most famous for her book Dead Man Walking (later turned into a movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn).
You see, acceptance is not only about understanding that will all have different abilities and needs, but also to recognize the importance of learning and progressing towards being fully admitted into a group.
I guess belonging to a group has its importance from time to time in life. Sharing an identity and common beliefs makes us feel recognized. Acting together strengthens us and increases our impact. In the case of activism, it is of the utmost importance to feel the support of the group, of like-minded individuals. Sometimes, the activist feels utterly lonely. You feel as though you are screaming in the desert of passiveness and none hears, none replies, none reacts. Slowly your friends start to think that you really are doing a bit too much fuss about these criminals on death row, that all you can think or speak of is related to human rights. And wouldn’t it be better to simply just ignore these topics and focus on lovely things? Sorry. Once you have begun seeing injustice around you, once you have begun feeling that something should be done, it is hard – if not impossible – to ignore the flaws of the world we live in.
Not only do I see the beauties and the flaws of the world around me, but I also see the connections between issues such as poverty, education, health, human rights, to name but a few. You are slowly drawn to understand other issues than your own, and this, in turn, makes your experience of your own reality much sharper. Let me share an example: I am a trained opera singer. I used to sing as a soloist a lot, worldwide, before turning to other artistic activities. Then one day, I received a first letter from Tony Medina. He was impressed that people were listening to my voice, that they actually would pay to hear me. He believed that I had an incredible gift and power. He was impressed because his voice was not being heard, because he felt he had no voice. I suddenly felt so embarrassed not to be using my voice to its full capacities, it made me want to go back to more singing. I have since then begun planning concerts against the death penalty, just like I have been singing against HIV&AIDS for the past 17 years.
The Uganda’s Anti-Homosexuality Bill represents everything I loathe: it attacks gays, it stigmatizes people living with HIV/AIDS, and it promotes capital punishment. Obviously I invited many friends to find 1 minute of their time to sign an online petition. If you are homosexual or know anyone around you who is, it would make sense to click on the link and sign up. Knowing that the bill would authorize HIV+ human beings to be hanged, you would click on the link and protest, even if you are not HIV+, and think you do not know anyone living with HIV/AIDS. If you are against the death penalty in general, you would click on the link and add your name to the list. So I invited everyone I know to join, including the +524,000 fans of my page “The Red Ribbon Army“, and the grand total so far is +7,000 signatures. Yes, there are a bit more than 7,000 people in the world who took a stand to say NO to Uganda. In comparison, there was an estimated crowd of 1.2 million on June 27-29, 2009 at the San Francisco LGBT Pride Parade & Celebration, the largest in the USA. How can you celebrate being gay and ignore those about to be hanged in Uganda or in Iran? Can’t you scream your pride AND your outrage?
I fought against Prop. 8 and I still believe marriage equality is a right. Yet, on the very same day that saw Obama elected, with the large support of the LGBT community, the rights of many who voted for hope were taken away. This is when you feel ignored and despised. You thought black people in the USA would support you because you supported the candidacy of the potentially first black US President? Well no. You woke up and that coffee was awfully bitter. Another example: in total, the death penalty system cost California taxpayers $137 million each year, whereas permanent imprisonment for all those currently on death row would cost just $11 million. Yet, Gov. Schwarzenegger wants to spend $400 million to construct a new facility to house death row inmates. When this was announced (end of July 2009), I also noticed that there was going to be a minimum of $52 million budget cut in services from HIV/AIDS to child health care to domestic violence victim. If everyone currently sentenced to execution were sentenced to permanent imprisonment instead, California taxpayers would save $1 billion in five years. Do you see the link now? California wastes money that could – and should – be used to recruit and pay more teachers, nurses, firefighters. And the online petition to save this billon $ got 7,648 signatures only. But we know that capital punishment is a symptom of a culture of violence. Money for death, not for life!
We are all connected you see. We are all connected even if you don’t see that we are. I wish my LGBT friends from California would vote to abolish the death penalty in the USA. I wish my abolitionists friends would say NO to Uganda’s anti human rights bill. I wish my friends who fight against HIV& AIDS in London would attend the silent protest in front of the American Embassy in London on April 30, 2010, organized by my friends Linda and Tim, of Voices for death row inmates. We are all connected as members of the large group called Humanity.
When I feel alone in my activism, I go back to that “Journey of Hope” conference in Hamburg and remember what Bill Pelke told us. In a very emotional moment, he said:
When I hear the stories of Terri (Steinberg) with a son on death row, of Ray Krone, innocent man on death row, people will change their minds and get rid of the death penalty. So when you sign your name to petitions, that is something that is very important, it is something you can do, and signing your name is something that is very important. Each one of you (…) can make a difference. I know that because you saved Paula Cooper’s life. Someday, the death penalty (…) will be abolished. The answer is love and compassion, for all humanity. Thank you very much.