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Court tells US to stay execution of three Mexicans


http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,889602,00.html
Andrew Osborn.Thursday February 6, 2003
The Guardian

The way in which America treats foreign nationals it sentences to death was called into question yesterday after the United Nations' highest court ordered Washington to stay the execution of three Mexicans on death row.
Siding with Mexico, which had complained that its citizens' legal rights were routinely flouted by the US authorities, the international court of justice meeting in the Hague demanded that the US "take all measures necessary" to ensure that the three men in question were not put to death. Last month Mexico asked the court to stay the execution of all 51 of its nationals on death row and order retrials because, it claimed, they had not been informed of their full legal rights after their arrests.

The UN court - popularly known as the world court - agreed to consider the Mexican claims and signalled that it did not want any Mexicans executed before it finished considering the case, which is likely to take years. It specifically ordered that three executions be stayed because, it said, the men were in danger of being put to death "in the coming months or possibly even weeks". At issue is America's adherence to the 1963 Vienna convention, under which foreign nationals arrested abroad must be informed of their right to speak to their consular officials without delay. In the case of Mexicans, it is alleged, this is not done.

The three men granted a reprieve by the unanimous ruling are Cesar Fierro, Roberto Ramos and Osvaldo Torres Aguilera, all of whom have exhausted every avenue of appeal. Mexico, which is opposed to the death penalty on principle, says it is particularly concerned about the case of Fierro. He has been on death row since 1980 when he was 22 and confessed to murdering a taxi driver in Texas. His confession was later found to have been coerced and the police involved were accused of perjury. The US could barely conceal its anger at yesterday's ruling. Clifford Sobel, the US ambassador to the Netherlands where the court is based, said it would be "premature" to say whether the US would even comply.

Although the world court's decisions are legally binding and in theory carry the full clout of the United Nations, it cannot enforce its decisions and the US has disregarded them in the past. "It is important to note that this is not a ruling on the merits of the case," said Mr Sobel, adding that the US justice department would carefully study the ruling and comment on it as soon as possible. The US had argued previously that any court interference in the case would effectively turn it into a "general criminal court of appeal" and claimed that its own sovereignty would be infringed.

If Mexico's wishes were granted, Washington had claimed, it would amount to "a sweeping prohibition on capital punishment for Mexican nationals in the US regardless of US law". But the world court flatly rejected those arguments yesterday and said it was not questioning America's right to impose the death penalty "for the most heinous crimes". Court officials said they expected America to comply. If it did not, a spokeswoman said, it could complain to the UN security council which could impose sanctions on America.