Death Penalty Director Tineke Harris speaks to Foreign and Commonwealth Office

October 11, 2010

Read a transcript of today’s speech, delivered at the launch of the British government’s policy on the worldwide use of the death penalty.

“I am very grateful for this opportunity to explain Reprieve’s work in assisting prisoners facing the death penalty, and to comment on the FCO’s new death penalty strategy that was so ably presented by the Minister of State, Jeremy Browne.

1) Reprieve’s work on the death penalty

Reprieve is a legal action charity. We use the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantánamo Bay. We investigate, litigate and educate, working on the frontline, to provide legal support to prisoners unable to pay for it themselves. Reprieve promotes the rule of law around the world, securing each person’s right to a fair trial, and saving lives.

Reprieve was founded by Clive Stafford Smith and has expanded rapidly. Our death penalty team now consists of six full-time lawyers and investigators in London, each supported by volunteers. In addition, Reprieve has full-time Fellows and volunteers based in the USA, Pakistan, Thailand, and Birmingham.

Reprieve’s death penalty work is mainly focused on assisting British nationals facing the death penalty around the world. As a UK-based charity, we are strategically placed to provide investigation support to British nationals. We can also work with the British government to bring its political power to bear on behalf of these prisoners.

Over the years, we have built up good relations with the FCO. The FCO’s consular posts in country give out Reprieve’s forms and this is how we identify most of the prisoners we work on behalf of. We currently assist over 30 British nationals who are facing the death penalty around the world. We have worked in 15 different countries. Our success rate in preventing the execution of British nationals is over 95%.

One recent example of effective joint action was the case of Samantha Orobator, who was facing the death penalty for drug trafficking in Laos. Reprieve and the FCO both worked in our respective spheres to secure a lesser sentence. The government then negotiated Samantha’s prison transfer to the UK.

Excitingly, Reprieve has received funding from the European Commission to expand our successful model of working with the FCO on behalf of British nationals to other European countries. We are seeking to identify all European nationals on death row in the US, and to work with their governments to support these prisoners. This strategic project could have a profound effect, putting significant political pressure on the US not to execute people. Indeed, as the Minister of State just pointed out, the US is a key country if we are going to persuade other countries to abolish the death penalty.

2. How the FCO can achieve its objectives / Comments on the FCO’s new death penalty strategy

Reprieve welcomes today’s launch of the FCO’s death penalty strategy. We agree that the government should aim for nothing less than complete global abolition. Indeed, through our EC Project, we hope to enlist the support of other European governments in achieving this aim.

Reprieve has extensive experience in assisting prisoners facing the death penalty around the world, including in two of the UK government’s priority countries. I would like to mention four lessons to be drawn from this experience, if the FCO is to achieve its policy objectives.

(1) First, as the cartoon on the slide behind me shows, the UK government is in the best position to achieve concrete results in preventing executions when it advocates on behalf of its own nationals. This is where the UK most obviously has standing to intervene. While political pressure in the abstract may be of some help, the death penalty debate is ultimately fuelled by the stories of individual prisoners.

(2) Secondly, generally speaking, where the UK seeks to save the life of one of its nationals, high level intervention at an early stage is likely to be most effective in avoiding a death sentence. Ideally, this should happen before the trial and preferably before the individual is even charged. Linda Carty’s case shows what happens if the intervention of the UK government comes too late – of course, in Linda’s case, through no fault of the FCO. Conversely, in a recent case involving another British national in the US, where the UK did learn of the case early on, the British government made pre-trial representations at the highest level to the District Attorney. As a result, the DA chose not to seek the death penalty in the first place. Thus, the FCO not only saved a life, but also years of work and taxpayers’ money.

(3) Indeed, and this is my third point, it is generally critical that the FCO intervenes robustly immediately following the arrest of a British national. The first few days following arrest are often when irreversible damage is done to the prisoner’s case. This is also when the most severe human rights violations are likely to occur, including torture and forced confessions. The case of Naheem Hussain and Rehan Zaman is a sad example of this. We believe that immediate consular assistance and representations in these crucial first days are essential to prevent torture and save lives.

(4) Finally, British government intervention is most likely to be effective where the government is prepared not only to voice its general opposition to the death penalty, but also to speak out about specific aspects of a prisoner’s case. Where appropriate, this could include facts of the case that suggest a prisoner’s innocence, mitigating factors, or violations of international law. A good example of the government speaking out in this way was the case of Akmal Shaikh in China. Although the UK government’s actions did not ultimately save Akmal’s life, they did result in increased global opposition to China’s prolific use of capital punishment and to the execution of the mentally ill.

Reprieve is very thankful for the tireless efforts of the FCO and its consular posts around the world in advocating on behalf of British nationals facing execution. We look forward to ongoing successful collaboration with the FCO in achieving the FCO’s death penalty objectives, and on drawing from the lessons learned in the years of joint efforts so far.”