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State killing is not the answer

'Guatemala should declare a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the {death penalty},' the organisation said.

Tomás Cerrate Hernández and Luis Amílcar Cetino Pérez - convicted in March 1998 of the kidnapping and murder of a wealthy elderly woman - have recently been moved to death row and are scheduled to die on 29 June. A third man, Fermin Ramirez, who was convicted of the rape and murder of a young child in 1997, is waiting to learn the day of his execution. The three men's requests for executive clemency were turned down by Guatemala's president, Alfonso Portillo.

Amnesty International recognises the seriousness of violent crime and the extreme suffering it causes to victims and their families. However, the organisation considers the death penalty to be the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment, and to have no proven deterrent effect on crime.

'Furthermore, any criminal justice system can be affected by discrimination and the possibility of judicial error, which could result in sending innocent people or those unfit to stand trial to their deaths.'

'Grave and widely recognised deficiencies in Guatemala's legal system increase the risk that innocent people could be killed,' the organisation added, pointing to the recent clemency extended to convicted murderer Pedro Rax Cucul because of grave errors in his trial. Proceedings were conducted in Spanish - a language he did not speak - and his defence was inadequate.

'The Rax case also shows why executive clemency must exist - to correct judicial errors or to take into account extenuating circumstances,' Amnesty International said. The organisation recently criticized the Guatemalan Congress decision to rescind the legislation giving the President clemency power, leaving in a judicial vacuum the issue of who now has this power. Under the American Convention of Human Rights, to which Guatemala is a party, every condemned person has a right to apply for amnesty, pardon or commutation of sentence. The convention also establishes that capital punishment shall not be imposed while such petition is pending.

Amnesty International rejects the argument, used by Guatemalan authorities, that lethal injection is a more 'humane' method of execution. The first person executed by lethal injection in Guatemala in February 1998 took 18 minutes to die due to a malfunction in the poison apparatus and was bleeding profusely from both arms since his executioners were unable to find the correct vein.

'That badly botched execution showed that lethal injection is neither painless nor quick,' Amnesty International said.

Background Guatemala maintained a de facto moratorium on executions from 1983 until 1996. This ended in September 1996, when two men convicted of the 1993 rape and murder of a child were executed by firing squad in a botched, televised execution. One required a coup de grace as he did not die in the original volley of shots. Prior to this execution, the Guatemalan government had rejected a request from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) for so-called 'precautionary measures,' that is that the execution of the death sentences be suspended until the Commission could consider whether the proceedings leading to the death sentences met the human rights protections standards set by the American Convention on Human Rights.

Repeated re-showing of the executions on Guatemalan and foreign television provoked national and international revulsion. The government responded by sending a Guatemalan delegation to the United States to learn how executions were carried out by lethal injection, which they considered to be a more 'modern' and 'humane' form of execution. Congress then passed new legislation providing for the introduction of execution by lethal injection. The first such execution took place on 10 February 1998, when Manuel Martínez Coronado, a Chortí indigenous peasant farmer, was executed after having been convicted of murder.

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