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Former death row inmates fight capital punishment

The World Congress against the death penalty opens today in Madrid, and some former inmates spoke about their thoughts on the issue.

FILE: The death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California
FILE: The death chamber of the new lethal injection facility at San Quentin State Prison in San Quentin, California
Image: Eric Risberg/AP/Press Association Images

FORMER INMATES ARE among those gathering to fight capital punishment at a world congress event that begins this morning.

Organised by Ensemble Contre La Peine de Mort (ECPM – Together Against the Death Penalty), it will take place in Madrid and will involve two days of debates as well as workshops and plenary sessions.

This is the fifth congress, and will take place from June 12-15.

The ECPM is calling for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide. So far, 97 countries have abolished the death penalty in all circumstances, while eight others have abolished it for common crimes. Thirty five countries have implemented a moratorium on executions for at least 10 years.

However, said ECPM, there are around 58 countries or territories where the death penalty is still applied.

Stories from former death row inmates

Twelve years after leaving death row in Florida, Joaquin Martinez still cannot abide traditional lightbulbs.

“At the time we still had the electric chair and just like in the movies, the bulbs flickered and went out when they executed someone,” said Martinez, who is visiting Madrid to join the congress.

I don’t have any normal lightbulbs at home, just halogens.

The 41-year-old Spaniard was arrested in 1996 in Florida on suspicion of double murder before being found not guilty by the US justice system and freed in 2001.

I still dream sometimes that I am a prisoner. I wake up with a shudder.

Organisers say they expect 1,500 people from 90 countries, including high-profile politicians such as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, to gather for the congress.

The debate will be punctuated by testimony from people who were once condemned to death or the relatives of those now living on death row.

Another Spaniard, 40-year-old Pablo Ibar, has now spent 19 years under lock and key in the same Florida death row that Joaquin Martinez left behind.

Arrested in 1994 for triple murder, Ibar was condemned to death in 2000. Ever since, his relatives have proclaimed his innocence.

Pablo Ibar keeps in shape and pores over legal files to better follow his case while waiting to hear if the US justice system will grant him a new trial. His alleged accomplice was found not guilty and freed at the end of last year, his family say.

Abolishing the death penalty

One of the goals of the congress, held every three years since 2001, is to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

“We are not here to point a finger but more to convince countries to get rid of this cruel, inhuman and degrading penalty,” said the head of the French lobby group organising the meeting, Raphael Chenuil-Hazan.

Twenty or thirty years ago, two-thirds of countries were anti-abolition and practised the death penalty. Today that situation has reversed.

But the 58 countries that still carry out the death penalty, of which 25 do so regularly, “are obviously the hardest to convince,” Chenuil-Hazan said.

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