World congress says 'no' to death penalty

Response to a crime should never be another crime

Photo: EP Official opening ceremony of the congress in the EP.

Palais d'Egmont, European Parliament and Bozar were the venues of a significant event that took place from 26 February to 1 March in Brussels. The 7th World Congress Against the Death Penalty, a leading abolitionist event around the globe, brought together politicians, activists, lawyers and other people involved in the cause of abolition of the capital punishment, with altogether 1,500 participants from over 140 countries attending the event.

Many of them came to the Belgian capital to tell their personal stories. Bill Pelke from Alaska is one of these people. He is president and co-founder of Journey of Hope…From Violence to Healing, an organisation led by murder victim family members who urge for abolition of the death penalty. They travel around the US and around the world to share their stories saying that the death penalty has nothing to do with healing, but just continue the cycle of violence. They participate in different campaigns spreading the message of nonviolence and forgiveness, promoting their vision for restorative justice. “We put a human face on the issue of death penalty,” Bill Pelke said.

Almost 34 years have passed since the day when four teenage girls knocked on his grandmother's door and said they wanted to take Bible lessons from her. Ruth Elizabeth Pelke, a Bible teacher, let them come into the house. When they entered, one girl grabbed a vase from the table and hit his grandmother's head with it. When she fell to the floor, another girl started to stab the woman with a knife - 33 times. The other two girls were looking around the house for money. “They came up with a total of 10 dollars and the keys to my grandmother's old car. My father found my grandmother's body the next day and the girls were arrested the following day,” Bill said.

Paula Cooper who was deemed to be the ringleader was sentenced to die in the electric chair by the state of Indiana. She was fifteen years old at the time of the murder. “Initially, I was supportive to the death penalty, but a year and a half after, during a period of personal reflection I became convinced that my grandmother would not want one of these girls to be executed.” So he became involved in an international crusade on Paula's behalf and in 1989, her sentence was commuted to sixty years in prison. She was released after 30 years, and few weeks before her two-year probation was ending, she committed suicide.

Opening the congress, EP Vice-President Pavel Telicka underlined that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent against crime and may lead to irreversible and irreparable damage in case of miscarriage of justice. Its application is often arbitrary or discriminatory or used as a political weapon against opponents, he warned.

We in the European Union believe that every human life matters - no matter how it is used, no matter how many mistakes a person makes, we believe that a state should never dispose of the life of a human being, said Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief. She also pointed out that the response to a crime must never be another crime. We believe in justice, not in revenge, HR Mogherini stressed.

Human life is a gift that we have received, the most important and primary, the source of all other gifts and rights, Pope Francis said in a video message.

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