US found guilty of flouting law on death penalty

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The Independent US

Foreign prisoners on Death Row in America were given a glimmer of hope yesterday when the World Court in The Hague found the United States guilty of flouting international law and ordered Washington to mend its ways.

In an unprecedented case demonstrating the gulf between Europe and America over capital punishment, Germany had taken the US to court and won. Judges in The Hague ruled that the US violated an international convention by failing to inform Germany when two of its nationals were arrested for bank robbery and murder. The US was also condemned for defying a stay of execution issued by the World Court.

The LaGrand brothers, Karl and Walter, went to the gas chamber in Arizona two years ago. The authorities in Germany were late to discover their predicament. Karl died first, followed by Walter 10 days later. He was put to death a day after the court in The Hague issued an emergency order to stop his execution. The brothers had been in jail since their botched bank robbery in 1982.

The court in The Hague was not mandated to ponder the severity of the young men's sentence: death for a first offence of murder in Karl's case, and the same for Walter who had killed no one. But Germany argued that the brothers' trial might have had a different outcome if they had been represented by a competent defence.

Under the 1963 Vienna Convention, Germany should have been informed the moment its two citizens were arrested. The German consulate, however, learnt of the LaGrands 10 years after their crime, when the brothers contacted them.

Walter and Karl had been born in Germany to a German mother, and brought up in Arizona. They remained German citizens. The United States has now apologised and set up a department dealing with consular access to foreigners in trouble.