U.S. authorities violated international law when they failed to grant consular services to two German brothers put to death in Arizona in 1999 and ignored a U.N. court order to stay one of the executions, the court ruled here Wednesday.
Although the landmark ruling in the suit brought by Germany is likely to bolster European arguments that the death penalty is cruel and inhumane, the International Court of Justice made no reference to the moral issues of capital punishment and the panel has no powers of enforcement.
But the decision by the U.N.'s chief judicial body casts the United States in a poor light among democratic peers at a time when the Bush administration is already under fire on environmental, defense and human rights issues. Washington conceded during the trial last year that it breached the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Relations in prosecuting Karl and Walter LaGrand without informing diplomats from their homeland.
The brothers, who were brought to the U.S. as children, were executed a week apart in 1999, 15 years after their conviction on charges of killing a bank manager and seriously wounding another employee during a 1982 holdup. The brothers, ages 18 and 20 at the time of the crime, were entitled as German nationals to visits and consultations with German diplomats to assist with their defense.
Neither U.S. nor Arizona officials notified the German Embassy in Washington or its consulate in Los Angeles. Berlin's diplomats learned of the case from the brothers only in 1992, a decade after their arrests and after all avenues of appeal had been exhausted.
Juergen Chrobog, the German ambassador at the time, made repeated appeals to Arizona authorities to grant retrials in view of the denial of the brothers' consular rights. After Karl LaGrand was executed Feb. 24, 1999, the German government filed suit against the U.S. in the U.N. court in an attempt to stop the execution of his older brother. The court issued an injunction, but Walter LaGrand was put to death the next day.
U.S. lawyers argued before the court in November that the brothers had received a fair trial and been accorded numerous appeals and reviews. The attorneys contended that the verdicts would have been unaffected by consular intervention.
Court President Gilbert Guillaume, however, reprimanded the U.S. for denying defendants their international rights, regardless of the likely outcome.
German officials hailed the ruling as a victory for human rights.
"The world court has fully confirmed the German position. This decision is of great importance for the protection of German citizens abroad and in general for all persons living in foreign countries," said Gerd Westdickenberg, the attorney who presented Germany's arguments before the court.
German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who has been outspoken about European revulsion over U.S. executions, also welcomed the ruling as a vindication of Berlin's position, said his spokesman, Andreas Michaelis.
In Washington, State Department legal advisor James Thessin asserted that U.S. officials recognize the importance of the Vienna Convention's protections, for Americans overseas as well as for foreigners accused of crimes on U.S. territory.
Wednesday's ruling was significant because it pronounced provisional orders of the International Court of Justice, such as the ignored injunction against Walter LaGrand's execution, to be legally binding. It was also unusual in its resolution of a legal standoff between two allies, as most disputes among Western democracies are settled in back-channel negotiations.
Germany may have resorted to letting the court rule on the case, in which U.S. officials had already conceded wrongdoing, to expose Washington's death penalty policy to further international scrutiny. Just last week, the Council of Europe--which requires abolition of capital punishment as a condition for European Union membership--held a World Congress Against the Death Penalty. The gathering in Strasbourg, France, concluded Saturday with an appeal to the U.S. and Japan--the only industrialized democratic powers still applying the death penalty--to cease what their allies consider a barbaric practice.
The Strasbourg congress, coming on the heels of the executions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy J. McVeigh and convicted murderer Juan Raul Garza, galvanized European opposition to capital punishment in the U.S. The delegates also spotlighted another recent capital case, that of Spaniard Joaquin Jose Martinez, to underscore contentions that U.S. policy is arbitrary, unjust and racially biased. Martinez spent more than three years on Florida's death row before being acquitted this month in a retrial.