Wednesday, November 21, 2007
Harper government 'washed its hands, just like Pontius Pilate'
The Ottawa Citizen
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
PARIS - The Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights watchdog, harshly denounced the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper yesterday for its decision to stop seeking clemency for Canadians on death row in American jails.
The council's secretary general, Terry Davies, likened the Harper government to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who "washed his hands" of the decision to crucify Jesus Christ because a mob demanded Christ's execution.
In a provocative interview, Mr. Davies also said Canada is effectively "subcontracting" the death penalty, just as the U.S. government has dispatched suspected terrorists to Third World countries, where they can be interrogated under torture.
He urged the federal government to reverse its decision and to press U.S. authorities to return Albertan Ronald Smith, the murderer at the centre of the controversy, from his Montana prison cell to serve the rest of his life behind bars in Canada.
"I'm very disappointed to learn that the Canadian government is not taking some action to get this man returned to Canada, where he should serve a life sentence. We certainly don't want a man like that walking the streets," Mr. Davies said.
"But to execute him is degrading. It's reducing authorities to the same level as people who kill people. Killing people is wrong. And the European view is we won't get down in the gutter with the people who commit murders.
"I'm just amazed that the Canadian government would wash its hands, just like Pontius Pilate."
Mr. Davies said the Harper government, which doesn't advocate the return of capital punishment, is essentially saying that the death penalty is acceptable as long as it doesn't happen on Canadian soil.
"In effect, what I think is that the people in government in Canada are subcontracting the death penalty, exactly the same way the United States of America has sent people to places like Afghanistan, where they are subject to torture and inhuman and degrading treatment in order to get them to give evidence when Americans themselves couldn't do it in America and no Europeans would do it."
Mr. Harper said the decision not to seek clemency for Mr. Smith, who is facing execution by lethal injection for killing two men in 1982, is consistent with his government's tough stand on crime.
"The reality of this particular case is that, were we to intervene, it would very quickly become a question of whether we are prepared to repatriate a double-murderer to Canada," Mr. Harper said.
"In light of this government's strong initiatives on tackling violent crime, I think that would send the wrong signal to the Canadian population."
The council, which promotes human rights and democracy on behalf of its 47 member countries, was created in 1949 at the suggestion of former British prime minister Winston Churchill.
Canada, the U.S., Mexico, Japan and the Holy See are observers at the council, which issues public declarations and initiates investigations into alleged human rights abuses among member countries.
Louise Arbour, the former Supreme Court of Canada judge who is now the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, and rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have already denounced the Harper government's refusal to intervene in the Smith case.
Mr. Davies said he doesn't have the jurisdiction to order an investigation, but didn't rule out the possibility that a member of the council's assembly, made up of deputies from national parliaments, could initiate a probe.
He said Canada is well known in Europe for being far more "civilized" than the U.S. because of its strong defence of human rights and opposition to the death penalty. "I would not say you could lose your reputation, but you could certainly damage it."
Today, Canadian and Bulgarian officials will head to council headquarters in Strasbourg for mediation over the future of Michael Kapoustin, jailed in Bulgaria on fraud charges since 1996. The Harper government wants him returned to Canada
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