Worldwide abolition — Fifth World Congress Against the Death Penalty, Madrid, Spain

By: Lily Hughes

This year, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) was represented for the first time at the Fifth World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Madrid, Spain. The World Congress is held every three years in different locales and is organized by the French abolition group Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM) in partnership with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Taking place from June 12-15, the event featured plenary sessions, roundtable discussions, workshops, social gatherings and much more.

Myself and CEDP board member Delia Perez Meyer (sister of Texas death row prisoner Louis Perez) arrived in Madrid on the morning of the first day, and joined hundreds of other attendees for the opening ceremonies of the Congress that evening. The conference opened with various government officials from all over the world speaking in many different languages. There were headsets available with dozens of translators for this and all the sessions over the week.

Describing the conference, Delia said, “It was a great experience for us. I thought that it was an extremely informative and useful conference, in that it helped us to see the global perspective of the application of the death penalty. I was very impressed with all the different organizations that participated from all the different countries. And I was amazed at the unity of the worldwide community. There were a number of world leaders opposed to the death penalty which was incredible for us, coming from the U.S.”

There were many interesting panel discussions throughout the weekend. Because the Congress focused on world abolition, Delia and I had to be strategic in figuring out which sessions to attend. We wanted to make sure we were able to find ways to bring our perspective on death penalty abolition in the U.S. into the conference, and we wanted to find ways to learn new things.

My favorite session of the whole conference focused on alternative sentencing. Several amazing speakers discussed the reasons abolitionists should oppose life without parole (LWOP) as an alternative to the death penalty. One of the speakers represented Penal Reform International, a fantastic group working on penal and criminal justice reform worldwide. Another speaker, Constance de la Vega, a professor from San Francisco, even quoted me at the end of her remarks, not knowing that I was in the room! I spoke during this session about the CEDP’s stance against promoting LWOP as a just alternative to the death penalty, and my comments were very well received.

In general, there were very few U.S. groups represented at the conference. The U.S. roundtable discussion featured Richard Dieter from the Death Penalty Information Center and Elizabeth Zitrin from Death Penalty Focus. There was a lot of good information presented here about the state of the death penalty in America today, but I felt, unfortunately, that only one strategy for changing public opinion was put forward—the more conservative strategy, which is to focus on the cost of the death penalty. The idea is to present LWOP as a cost-saving measure. But this is done without ever acknowledging LWOP is a horrific sentence in itself.

I felt it was also problematic that the speakers emphasized that abolitionists should look for ways to partner with law enforcement, without ever mentioning the detrimental role of the police in our criminal justice system. I spoke from the floor here, raising some debates, including a point about the huge impact the movements around individual cases like Troy Davis and Stan Tookie Williams have had on how people think about the death penalty. After the session, several people came up to talk with me and said they liked the points I raised.

There was a very useful session about legal and diplomatic strategies for foreigners sentenced to death. One of the speakers in this session was Victor Uribe, of a Mexican diplomat, who has worked on providing consular protection for foreign-born prisoners in Texas and Louisiana.

A highlight for Delia was a session entitled “Victim’s Families: An International Action Network.” Bill Pelke, a murder victim’s family member (from the U.S.) and the founder of Journey of Hope, spoke here about how the young woman who murdered his grandmother was being released from prison in the coming days, in Indiana, and about his relationship with her over the years, including putting her through college.

Another important session was on innocence and abolition—the meeting featured Alvaro Corcuera, a Spanish journalist and Kirk Bloodsworth from Witness to Innocence, and focused on how to use innocence and judicial errors as an important part of abolition strategy, without penalizing defense attorneys.

Throughout the week, we met some fantastic individuals and organizations in the fight against abolition worldwide.

There were former death row prisoners from around the world at the conference. We spent a lot of time with two of them: Kirk Bloodsworth from Witness to Innocence, a former death row prisoner from the U.S.; and Edward Edmary Mpagi, a former death row prisoner from Uganda who was freed after it was proven that the person he was supposed to have murdered was alive! Edward worked with the African Journey of Hope in 2011.

We also met Tanya Ibar, the wife of Pablo Ibar, a Spanish national who has been on Florida’s death row since 1994. Pablo Ibar’s co-defendant has already released based on evidence of innocence, which should have applied to both men.

Both Tanya and Kirk spoke during a wonderful evening party on a Madrid rooftop. As the crowd of abolitionists gathered, the sun was setting over distant mountains and the city of Madrid was twinkling below. We also heard from two Nobel Peace Prize winners during the evening’s program: Northern Ireland peace activist Mairead Maguire and Iranian lawyer Shirin Ebadi, the first Muslim women to win the prize.

The folks from the Collectif Unitaire National de soutiens a Mumia Abu-Jamal were so helpful to us throughout the weekend, letting us put our materials at their table and showing us the ropes at the conference. We made up about 30 packets of information about ourselves to hand out, which included our newsletter, the New Abolitionist, fact sheets about cases we work on and our contact information. We used these to start conversations with folks at the different sessions we attended. We also left some at the table, and all were gone by the end of the weekend.

We had a great time hanging out with Will Francome, whose story was the basis for the movie In Prison My Whole Life, focusing on Mumia. His new project is called One for Ten and is a series of ten short films about former death row prisoners that focuses on the different ways innocent people are convicted. I attended a session where I saw three of these fantastic short films.

Delia was so happy to connect with the Sant’ Edigio Community, a Catholic organization based in Rome that has supported death row prisoners around the world through pen pal relationships. We also were able to meet several folks from the British organization Reprieve, which has been responsible for the brilliant and successful campaign to persuade European drug companies to not sell their products for use in executions.

The CEDP was able to participate in the conference in a few formal ways. We submitted a poster that Delia had created for display, featuring her brother Louis, and focused on our strategy of working on individual cases. Our poster was displayed alongside several others, and during our official “poster session,” we discussed our work with the different folks that came by.

Later, I was called upon to help translate the final statement of the Congress into English from French—a difficult, but fun, job!

On the final day of the Congress, there was a huge march against the death penalty through the streets of Madrid. It was so inspiring to march alongside people from all over the world and hear chants in all different languages. We carried a big banner with a picture of Louis Perez during the march and had our picture taken a lot! Delia was interviewed by journalists from all over the world throughout the weekend and at the march. 

We are so grateful to the French abolition group Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM) and World Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP) for making this trip possible. We had an amazing four days and met so many incredible people. It was truly an unforgettable experience.