Thai Citizen's Execution Stayed -- the Whole World is Watching

America's death penalty has stepped onto the world stage.Early this week, as vice president Albert Gore lectured delegates to the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit on human rights, Thai government officials were awaiting word on the fate of a Thai citizen, Jaturun Siripongs.The state of California had scheduled Siripongs for execution on November 17, and the Thai government had made Herculean efforts to reach across the Pacific Ocean and save him. They got the answer they hoped for when U.S. District Court Maxine Chesney issued an order -- later upheld by a Court of Appeals and by the U.S. Supreme Court -- restraining the state's executioners.The court found that Siripongs, imprisoned 17 years for a robbery-murder in a Thai market in Garden Grove, California, was denied due process by Governor Pete Wilson at a clemency hearing. Wilson told Siripongs' lawyers not to present any issues previously litigated in arguing for executive clemency, an extra-judicial and largely discretionary process.So warned, the defense dutifully presented a comprehensive plea for mercy supported by the victims' families, a former warden of San Quentin prison, two jurors who had originally voted for Siripongs' execution, several Buddhist scholars and monks -- and the Royal Thai government.Wilson waited until the last possible moment to deny clemency, and then did so on the grounds that the very issues he had said he would not consider -- evidence pointing to the participation of others in the crime, for example -- were not presented. The court ruled that the clemency process cannot be a sham.As executions become routine in the United States, stirring barely a flicker of news coverage, there is growing criticism in foreign countries over U.S. policy.In this case, the Thai government took the unprecedented step of formally petitioning Wilson to grant clemency and also promised to extradite the condemned man to serve out his life in a Thai prison. (Thailand itself retains the death penalty -- although it is applied rarely and has been publicly opposed by the King.)In the past five years, eight foreign nationals from six different countries have been executed in the United States. Most, including Siripongs, were denied the right to consult with their national consulates. This right is provided by the Vienna Convention, which ensures the same privilege for Americans living and traveling abroad. Indeed, this is why U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright sought, unsuccessfully, to halt the April 14 execution of Paraguayan citizen Angel Breard in Virginia.Earlier this year, the United Nations issued a report on the death penalty in the U.S. finding "a significant degree of unfairness and arbitrariness operates in its application" at a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which then approved a resolution, co-sponsored by 61 nations, calling for a moratorium on the death penalty.Other signs suggest the United States is increasingly isolated on this issue. The 40 nation Council of Europe has called for a ban on the death penalty, it has been suspended by the Ukraine (once one of the world's leading executioners), Russia, and South Africa. And in a recent letter, an official of the European Parliament warned Texas governor George Bush, Jr., that, "many companies, under pressure ... to apply ethical business practices, are beginning to consider the possibility of restricting investment in the United States to states that do not apply the death penalty."In the first hour of November 17, when Jaturun Siripongs was to be executed, word reached the protesters gathered outside the gates of San Quentin that the Supreme Court had upheld the stay of execution and he had been spared, at least temporarily.At that at moment, the dark clouds that had dropped a steady, cold rain, cleared revealing a brilliant sky. As the shivering but euphoric demonstrators walked away, they were suddenly treated to a brilliant shooting star from the Leonid meteor shower -- a phenomenon most visible from northern Thailand, Siripong's birth place. Michael Kroll, an associate editor of Pacific News Service, specializes in criminal justice and death penalty issues.

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