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US / Death penalty: UN experts call for federal moratorium as Boston bomber gets death sentence

GENEVA (26 June 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteurs on summary executions, Christof Heyns, and on torture, Juan E. Méndez, today called on the United States Government to establish a federal moratorium on the imposition of the death penalty with a view of abolishing it.

The experts’ call comes after Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was formally sentenced to death this week for his part in the Boston marathon bombings in April 2013, confirming the recommendation made by a federal jury last month. 

“Despite the fact that the crimes committed by Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fall within the most serious crimes provision of international safeguards, this decision contradicts the trends towards abolishing the death penalty in the country in law and practice,” the human rights experts said.

“It would have been preferable to sentence the author of the Boston marathon bombings to life imprisonment instead of keeping him in the spotlight throughout years of the appeal process,” they said.

“The death penalty does not show respect for life, in fact it does the opposite. There is no proof that it has a special deterrent effect. Especially if imposed for crimes motivated by ideological or religious considerations, this form of punishment plays into the hands of those who treat life as dispensable and encourage rather than discourage them,” the experts stressed.

The Special Rapporteurs recalled that more than three quarters of countries worldwide have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice, and the US, like the rest of the world, is moving away from the use of capital punishment.

The State of Nebraska abolished this punishment on 27 May 2015, and other states such as Colorado, Delaware, Montana and Kansas, are currently debating its abolition. The State of Massachusetts abolished capital punishment for state crimes since 1984 and has not executed anyone in the last 70 years.

“The decision of a federal jury to impose the death penalty for a crime committed in Massachusetts, where the death penalty has been abolished for decades, illustrates how out of place this form of punishment is,” they said.

The experts also called on the US Government to reconsider whether “the use of the death penalty per se respects the inherent dignity of the human person,” and noted that “such punishment causes severe mental and physical pain or suffering and constitutes a violation of the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

“Despite all efforts to implement capital punishment in a ‘humane’ fashion, time and again executions have resulted in degrading spectacles. The death penalty as a form of punishment is inherently flawed,” they stressed.

“The argument of the federal authorities, that their hands are tied when it comes to the death penalty since it is a matter decided by state law, is unacceptable,” they highlighted. “International law holds the nation as a whole accountable for all its constituent organs or jurisdictions. And there are concrete steps that the Federal Government could take, including a moratorium on the death penalty for federal crimes.”

The Special Rapporteurs echoed previous calls by the Human Rights Committee and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, urging the US Federal Government to consider establishing a federal moratorium on the death penalty.

The experts are in contact with the State concerned to clarify the issue in question.

The Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns (South Africa), is a director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa and Professor of Human Rights Law at the University of Pretoria, where he has also directed the Centre for Human Rights, and has engaged in wide-reaching initiatives on human rights in Africa. The expert has advised a number of international, regional and national bodies on human rights issues. Learn more, visit: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Detention/Pages/WGADIndex.aspx

Juan E. Méndez (Argentina) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as the Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment in November 2010. He is independent from any government and serves in his individual capacity. Mr. Méndez has dedicated his legal career to the defense of human rights, and has a long and distinguished record of advocacy throughout the Americas. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Torture/SRTorture/Pages/SRTortureIndex.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – United States of America: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Countries/ENACARegion/Pages/USIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests, please contact Mr. Johel Dominique (+41 22 928 9398 / jdominique@ohchr.org) or Ms. Petrine Leweson (+ 41 22 91 79114 / pleweson@ohchr.org)

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Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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