U.S. told to review 51 death sentences

Mexicans were denied right to speak to consular officials, U.N. court rules

April 01, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

THE HAGUE, Netherlands - The International Court of Justice ordered U.S. courts yesterday to review death sentences imposed on 51 Mexicans in the United States, saying that the prisoners' rights had been violated under international law.

The decision by the United Nations' highest court was seen as a moral victory in Mexico and as a stinging rebuke to the United States.

The international court ruled that the prisoners' right to speak with Mexican consular officials after their arrests had been violated. It ordered the United States to undertake "an effective review" of the convictions and sentences. The next Mexican scheduled for execution in the United States is to die May 18 in Oklahoma.

Mexican President Vicente Fox said the decision was "received with joy" and called it "a victory for international rights, for human rights."

Arturo Dager, a senior legal adviser to Mexico's Foreign Ministry, said Mexico "totally trusts that the United States will do the right thing and the necessary thing to fulfill this decision."

It was unclear last night that courts in the United States would heed the ruling, and federal officials reacted cautiously, saying they need time to study it.

"It's a very complex ruling," said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman. "We'll decide, based on studying it, how we can go about implementing it."

The United States acknowledges the jurisdiction of the international court to resolve disputes arising under the Vienna Convention on Consular Rights, which allows people arrested abroad to meet with representatives of their government. The United States regularly invokes the convention to visit Americans in foreign jails.

However, the Bush administration has sometimes been skeptical, even hostile, toward the application of international law. Even if the United States bows to the ruling, federal officials may not be able to compel states to heed it.

"The International Court of Justice does not have jurisdiction in Texas," said Gov. Rick Perry, who succeeded George W. Bush as governor.

Mexican officials noted yesterday that nations that defy the court can be referred to the U.N. Security Council for "appropriate action." But the court has no power to enforce its rulings.

The court said the United States had repeatedly violated a 1963 international accord, the Vienna Convention, which requires police to tell foreigners under arrest that they have a right to contact their country's diplomats without delay.

It said the agreement should apply to all foreigners imprisoned for serious crimes. There are 121 foreign citizens on death row in the United States, including 55 Mexicans, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

Mexico was the third country to sue the United States for similar violations in the past five years, after Germany and Paraguay. It filed a complaint in January 2003 to halt the imminent executions of three of its citizens.

The United States did not deny that it had breached the convention. In the past, it apologized and promised better compliance, clearly eager to avoid further embarrassment.

It also argued that the U.S. practice of allowing defendants to ask for mercy provides an adequate remedy because it often results in pardons or in sentences commuted before an execution.

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