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ICJ Hears Death Penalty Suit Against US

Mexican government says 52 nationals on death row in United States were not informed of their rights.
By Karen Meirik

The International Court of Justice in The Hague this week began hearing a case in which the Mexican government alleges that 52 of its nationals were unfairly sentenced to death in the United States.


Mexican officials claim that the United States did not inform them of their right to contact their consulates to request legal assistance as mandated by the 1963 Vienna convention on consular cooperation, of which both countries are signatories.


They say that in the majority of the cases, the arrested Mexicans were only told of their right to seek consular assistance after their convictions, and that the trials were therefore unfair. They also claim that the US government was aware of the violation of these 52 men's rights.


Mexico is demanding that all 52 of the death-row inmates be granted re-trials, this time with legal assistance from their consulates.


The case at the International Court of Justice, ICJ, presided over by a board of 15 judges, is extremely controversial, especially in light of frequent criticism of the United States for being one of the only developed countries that still imposes the death penalty.


"We don't ask [that] our prisoners to be released," said Mexican ambassador Juan Manuel Gomez-Robledo. "But what we do demand is that a country which chooses to impose the death penalty respects in an extremely careful manner its legal procedures, including respecting international law."


American attorney Sandra Babcock, who is acting for Mexico, told the court that the United States is "looking reality straight in the eye, and denying it". She said that consular assistance "could have, in capital proceedings, made the difference between life and death".


During the hearing, the Mexican delegation cited an ICJ ruling from June 1999 in what was known as the LeGrand-case. In that case, the ICJ found the United States in breach of the Vienna convention for having denied consular assistance to two German brothers, the LeGrands, who were accused of murder.


The judge presiding over the current case, Shi Jiuyuong, also sat on the LeGrand case. At the time of the 1999 verdict, he stated, "In cases where a sentence of death is imposed, every possible measure should be taken to prevent injustice or an error in conviction or sentencing."


The US delegation is being represented by William H. Taft, great-grandson of the US president of the same name. In his opening remarks, he warned the ICJ not to interfere in the American legal system.


During the hearing, German Professor Thomas Weigend argued on behalf of the United States that it is not legally necessary to throw out a verdict just because consular assistance was denied. "Breaches of the Vienna convention hardly qualify as a procedural error, because they do not directly interfere with a foreign national's criminal process rights," Weigend said. He added that countries such as China, France and Japan often permit interrogation of suspects without even granting them access to legal counsel.


Wiegend said that even if the lack of consular assistance rendered the subsequent testimonies illegal, the Mexican nationals would still not have to be re-tried. Citing a recent case before the UN tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, he said, "Illegally-obtained evidence is admissible in court unless the method by which it has been obtained casts substantial doubt on its reliability, or admission would be anti-ethical to, and would seriously damage, the integrity of proceedings."


The United States has agreed to hold off on executing any of the Mexicans pending the court's decision. There is no timetable for when the ICJ is to give its final verdict.


Karen Meirik is an IWPR contributor in The Hague.