As part of the 15th World Day Against the Death Penalty on 10 October 2017, ECPM invited France’s human rights ambassador, a journalist, researchers, NGO representatives, a former death row prisoner and lawyers to discuss this year’s chosen theme: Poverty and Justice: a Deadly Mix. So many people responded to the appeal of this very emotional and informative conference. Here are a few excerpts.

(c) Siavosh Hosseini/The Media Express

Alain Morvan, a journalist at Républicain Lorrain and a member of ECPM’s Board:

“Being poor slowly destroys you – that’s hardly news, it’s true in all contexts. But, it’s even worse if you are suspected of a serious crime or you are victim of judicial error. Take India where a recent study estimated that nearly 75% of prisoners sentenced to death are economically vulnerable. Similarly, in the United States 95% of people on death row come from underprivileged backgrounds. You need money to ensure your rights are respected and to defend yourself. Money is also a way of surviving in a legal system where corruption sometimes reigns supreme. Finally, money provides a way of withstanding being held on death row for 10, 15 or 20 years.”

Jean-Marie Burguburu, former President of the Paris Bar, former President of France’s National Bar Council:

“The death penalty still lingers around us because it still exists in too many countries, although there has been a fairly serious move towards abolition. When this sentence is incurred, the defence team must play its full role and there is never a moment when you can say: “There’s nothing to be done”. You plead before the court; you put in a plea for clemency; you do whatever you can to avoid that irreversible outcome. This year’s theme, the death penalty and poverty, is very interesting. If you’ll excuse the expression, poverty provides the ‘gallows bird’. And this was true in earlier centuries too. In France, they beheaded many aristocrats and noblemen but death by hanging was the daily fate, if I can put it that way, of the poor who sometimes had gone off the rails simply over petty theft. Well, this is not ancient history. It still seems that it is easier for the courts to pursue and sentence someone, even going as far as the supreme punishment, when they come from a poor background rather than a middle-class or wealthy background.”

François Croquette, France’s Human Rights Ambassador:

“I would like to recall France’s inviolable position against the death penalty in all places and under all circumstances. The path we have taken over the last 40 years has been at the forefront of the fight for abolition of this unjust, inhuman and ineffective punishment. We call on all States which still use capital punishment to establish a moratorium with a view to definitive abolition. Unfortunately, this punishment continues to be applied across the world, with three countries standing out in particular: China, Iran (which continues to execute juveniles) and Saudi Arabia which last week carried out its 100th execution since the start of the year. Unfortunately, they top this ominous champion’s league. Other States have resumed executions having previously ended the practice. Last April, the US state of Arkansas executed 4 prisoners in the space of a few days because the drugs were about to expire. Then there’s Florida which has resumed executions, and I would like to mention here the name of Michael Lambrix who was executed last week after 33 years on death row.”

Richard Sédillot, a lawyer, Vice-President of the European and International Affairs Committee of France’s National Bar Council, ECPM spokesperson:

“There is a very particular link between the death penalty and poverty. I will quote something the American lawyer, Robin Maher, has said on several occasions: “People in France tend to think, mistakenly, that in the United States the death penalty is a black and white issue; it’s about the colour of the skin of those sentenced. That is not completely wrong – racism can play a role. But, that’s not the real issue. The colour of justice in the United States is not white or black – it’s green, the colour of the dollar.” When a head of State wants to demonstrate some sort of pseudo-authority, they re-establish the death penalty to show the population that they are strong, when in fact it’s a sign of weakness, a missed opportunity to find the real tools to be used against criminality. I think that for these heads of State, it’s not a question of knowing who is going to be executed; it’s about maintaining the death penalty to assert their authority. And if you’re going to maintain it, you may as well sentence and execute the poorest because no one talks about them. And they won’t make trouble because they probably won’t have the means to hire a thundering lawyer who will denounce the conditions in which the decisions are made. Sentencing the poorest means avoiding any discussion and any inflamed debate.”

Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, ECPM Director General:

“I think the theme of poverty is central and key in the struggle against the death penalty. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the very first document on which our commitment is based, this notion of equality can be seen from the very first article. Brian Stevenson, a famous American lawyer, explains it very well: “Our system treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.” We cannot accept such inequality. When it comes to the death penalty, poverty has an impact at all stages of the process: at the moment of the crime, through the issue of access to justice and also during incarceration. Poverty marginalises prisoners and their families as well: when women, children and husbands cannot go and see their families or cannot find work because they are seen as being part of a criminal’s family. In the United States, 160 people have been exonerated but the overwhelming majority of them have not received a dollar in compensation. These are people who find themselves with a criminal record, have spent 10, 15 or 20 years imprisoned in atrocious conditions and are unable to reintegrate back into society. The State marginalises these men and women.”

Jacques Bilodeau, Special Adviser to the Secretary General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie:

“The first human right is the right to life. This right is inalienable. Our work is part of extending the Bamako declaration which commits us to respecting people’s dignity. The OIF is therefore advocating for abolition of capital punishment with its 84 Member States. We are also working closely with NGOs, particularly ECPM with which we have just organised a conference in Rabat on the role of NHRIs in abolition of the death penalty. Currently, three quarters of French-speaking countries have abolished the death penalty. Our fight against the death penalty is also a fight against discrimination. All the statistics show that the overwhelming majority of those sentenced come from society’s most underprivileged groups. These underprivileged groups are experiencing the full force of a dual socio-legal injustice.”

Aurélie Plaçais, Director of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty:

“The research into application of the death penalty in India represents a titanic piece of work. We would like to see more research of this kind. Unfortunately, such an approach could not be used in the country which executes more people than anywhere else: China where between 2,000 and 10,000 people are executed per year. As regards the situation in India, we were very hopeful in 2013. Parliament had published a study into possible abolition and its conclusions were fairly optimistic: it requested abolition of the death penalty, except for cases of terrorism. Then elections were held, won by the opposition party which tends to be in favour of the death penalty. Finally, the most progressive judges of the Supreme Court retired…Today, the political atmosphere is not favourable to abolition in India.”

Joaquin Martinez, a former death row prisoner from Spain, sentenced to death in the United States:

“Since I left death row, I have spoken about this theme with many people and what I notice is that it is not just racism or the context of the country which comes into play. Above all, it is about money and the financial means to defend yourself. People should know that in the United States prisoners sentenced to death find themselves facing prosecutors who have a couple of million dollars at their disposal to investigate and prove their guilt. How many of the accused can raise such a sum? It’s impossible! I never met anyone who was in that situation on death row. In my case, if I hadn’t had so much support from the European community and all the organisations which were committed to defending me and who were able to get together a million euros, I would probably be dead today. Once you’ve been sentenced, it’s essential to have money to be able to leave death row. But, it is also indispensable earlier on during the very first trial. If you’re not prepared with good lawyers from the beginning, you increase your chances of being sentenced to death.”

Taieb Bessadok, a Tunisian lawyer defending Maher Manaï who has been sentenced to death:

“Maher Manaï comes from Kefr, a province where there is no money. He worked on construction sites from day to day. He was in a café when the crime took place; he went to see what had happened and the police arrested him. That is when his nightmare began. He has always denied committing this crime. Due to a lack of money, he was defended by a trainee lawyer who tried his best…and he was sentenced to death. He stayed there for nine years. When I spoke to him for the first time, he told me: “I was alone in the dark and when the guards opened the doors at 4 o’clock in the morning every day, I felt that the execution was going to happen.” Nine years isn’t nothing. After 14 January 2011 and the Tunisian revolution, death row really changed. Prisoners sentenced to death were switched to life imprisonment. Maher had a lot of advantages from that moment on: he could finally talk to his family. The nine years had passed without any contact with family or NGOs. He was even ill…it was a real hell. Today, we are on the right path to proving his innocence. Maher Manaï’s story was discovered after the investigation carried out by ECPM in 2012 in 5 prisons in Tunisia. A book was published and the statistics showed that many of the prisoners sentenced to death are from Siliana. This is a very poor town with a lot of unemployment.”

Urbain Yamaego, Coordinator of the Burkina-Faso Coalition Against the Death Penalty

“In Burkina-Faso, to defend yourself you first pay out of your own pocket. Then, if you don’t have any money, eventually the State will come to your rescue with legal aide. Obviously, the quality of the defence depends on how big your pockets are. If you use legal aid, there’s a good chance you’ll have a lawyer who won’t defend you well. As soon as you’re arrested, you have the right to see a lawyer who will be there during the preliminary interrogation. So, even before there is a case a rich person can call on someone. They will be questioned in the presence of a lawyer, something which will reduce the risk of torture and a forced confession. On the contrary, when you’re poor you must wait until the investigation into the case and prove your poverty to the competent authorities. Class-based justice exists from the very moment charges are brought. The contacts you have can also use their influence to help you get out of trouble.

In Burkina-Faso, we have a dozen prisoners sentenced to death in prisons. All of them have been sentenced for parricide, murder or assassinations as part of occult practices…You feel the weight of poverty just through the categories of these crimes. Who kills for occult practices? Generally, people without any money who have been to see a marabout who has told them: “Bring me human blood, bring me a penis and I’ll make you rich”. And these people commit the crime. Or a richer man has ordered the crime and got hold of a poor man. This issue is even more important for us in Burkina because in the current socio-political context where we have just had a popular uprising and resisted an attempted coup d’état, the feeling is developing that class-based justice does exist. Those who are accused within the framework of the attempted coup d’état will never be sentenced to the death penalty. At the moment in Burkina-Faso, people feel that when you’re poor, the justice system crushes you.

Thanks to the campaign carried out by the Constitutional Commission which was established with a view to moving to the 5th Republic, the draft constitution includes Article 5 which says that “no one may be sentenced to death in Burkina Faso”. The work is done. Now we just need either a referendum or a parliamentary vote so that we can become an abolitionist country.”