The head of the Council of Europe derided the United States' use of the death penalty Thursday, calling it ineffectual against crime and a morally wrong choice that has put innocent people on death row.
Also at the first World Congress Against the Death Penalty, which opened Thursday, the European Union's top foreign policy official, Chris Patten, denounced a campaign of executions by China, called the "Strike Hard" policy, which he called "so horrifying as to be almost unbelievable."
During a highly-charged opening session, Walter Schwimmer, secretary-general of the Council of Europe, the continent's largest human rights organization, cast aside his prepared notes and attacked U.S. policy.
"Do you know how many people in the United States are on death row?" Schwimmer asked. "No less than 3,700. Would anyone really believe that the death penalty is a tool to fight crime? If that would be true, the United States would be a country without crime and without violence."
The three-day conference in Strasborg, France, opens in the wake of the federal executions in the United States of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and convicted murderer and drug trafficker Juan Raul Garza.
During a visit to Europe last week, President Bush came under heavy criticism from death penalty opponents. He insisted that "the death penalty is the will of the people in the United States."
In his remarks, Schwimmer cited the case of Joaquin Jose Martinez, a Spaniard who spent 37 months on death row for the slaying of a drug trafficker and a striptease artist near Tampa, Fla. He was acquitted early this month after a retrial.
"What would have happened if the execution some years ago had not been postponed? Would anybody think this execution had been justice?" Schwimmer said.
Criticism at the conference also focused on China. The anti-crime campaign Hard Strike has already sent hundreds ranging from murderers, drug dealers to embezzlers to be executed after being paraded at public rallies. Foreign critics fear Chinese courts are rushing to judgment, condemning people on possibly shaky evidence or even forced confessions.
"The figures emanating from China about its use of the death penalty under the "strike hard" policy are so horrifying as to be almost unbelievable," said Patten in a statement prepared for address.
He also warned that in Iran the practice of executing women by stoning had resumed after a four-year lull. He said he had raised the issue with Iranian officials recently.
The 43-member Council of Europe, which organized the conference, has obtained a total ban or moratorium on executions in its member states. Abolishing the death penalty is also a requirement for membership in the 15-member EU.
© MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed
© 2001 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.