The Hill: Door opens to return of the noose

In an interview two weeks ago with the influential French-language daily, Le Devoir, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon said that capital punishment is okay for Canadians as long as they are convicted in “sovereign and democratic countries” which adhere to the primacy of law.

He said the Harper government would not seek clemency for Canadians sentenced to capital punishment in those countries.

Not a blessed word appeared in English-Canada about Cannon’s announcement in support for the death penalty abroad. It was as if the rest of Canada was totally asleep or hiding out somewhere north of Red Deer, Alberta.

It wasn’t a slip-up either. Cannon came back on June 19, the last day of the session, and repeated what had been reported in print, linking the death penalty to Canadian values of liberty, democracy, and human rights.
Cannon stopped short of the old saw about “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” perhaps realizing that a country blind and toothless might put an additional strain on our medical resources.

Nor did he indicate whether this is the first step towards bringing back the death penalty in the fall when the session resumes.
Cannon repeated that the Harper government would respect “the decisions of sovereign and democratic states” about executing Canadians. He did not mention anything about torture.

Canada abolished the death penalty in 1976, and seeking clemency for Canadians convicted abroad has been automatic ever since.

But in November 2007 the Harper government announced that it would not help Ronald Allen Smith, a Canadian sentenced to death in Montana for killing two natives. Smith is still on death row. Last March a Federal Court ordered Harper to seek clemency for Smith.

A Canadian youth, Mohamed Kohail faces execution by decapitation in Saudi Arabia in the 2007 death of another student in a schoolyard fight in Jeddah.
Harper has not lifted a finger to help so far. Does that mean that Saudi Arabia, home of 15 of the 19 New York 9/11 terrorists, is on Cannon’s list of “sovereign and democratic” countries?

King Saud would argue that it should be, and he has the oil exports to Canada to prove it, but some refugees might question the “democratic” label for Saudi Arabia.
Sharia law is in effect in Saudi Arabia. Was Cannon referring to respect for primacy of “Sharia” law, or did he mean only “Canadian” law? Another problem.

And what about a third Canadian awaiting execution by a firing squad in China who was convicted of something or other that has to do with offending the state, a law that Chinese courts take seriously, at least serious enough to execute him? In Canada, it’s called a Letter to the Editor.

Cannon’s announcement raises all sorts of international problems for Canada. Perhaps that was why Prime Minister Stephen Harper chose Cannon to make the announcement.
There are 192 countries in the United Nations. Most are “sovereign” although only about half we would consider “democratic” and even that can be debated.

Countries will want to know if they are on Cannon’s list of good guy countries whose laws he respects, which means they can execute Canadians at will.
And the ones who are not on his list, are going to be awful mad. How agreeable are they going to be to grant his request for clemency?

Either way, it is a dumb move. Cannon has boxed himself into a no-win situation with the lives of Canadians at stake, all this from a Harper government which promises to protect at all cost the “lives and security” of all Canadians.

It would have been much simpler to avoid indulging in an ideological “pick-and-choose” of who lives and who dies, and continue to ask for clemency in every case, at least being consistent with the absence of a death penalty in Canada.

The Opposition in the Commons was ready for Cannon on the last day of the session.
Liberal Bob Rae asked, “If the death penalty is not acceptable in Canada why would it be acceptable for Canadians in the U.S., China or Saudi Arabia?”

“He’s in favour of capital punishment,” said Bloc Leader Gilles Duceppe. “It’s as simple as that.”
Bloc MP Francine Lalonde said the Harper government has given itself arbitrary power of life and death over certain Canadians by deciding who gets clemency and who doesn’t.

The new policy may be an indication the Harper government is planning to try to bring back the noose in Canada. It all depends on how well its new “pick-and-choose” policy goes over on the BBQ circuit this summer while the Commons is on holidays.

Both the UN and Amnesty International have asked the Harper government not to play “pick-and-choose” with Canadians’ lives.
For years the Liberals have been saying - especially at election time - that the Conservatives are secretly planning to bring back the death penalty, by steps, if not all at once.

But until now the Liberals never had any tangible proof to back up their allegation. Cannon’s announcement changes all that.
The summer will tell how far he gets.

Richard Cleroux is a freelance reporter and columnist on Parliament Hill. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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