Austria Feels Sense of Betrayal by Native Son

Times Staff Writer

VIENNA — For years in his Austrian homeland the tabloid papers affectionately referred to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger as “Our Arnie.” On Tuesday, after he refused to pardon convicted murderer Stanley Tookie Williams, a headline on the front page of one of the country’s largest newspapers was “Terminator.”

Williams was executed by lethal injection early Tuesday morning after a worldwide campaign to persuade Schwarzenegger or U.S. courts to spare him.

In Schwarzenegger’s home province of Styria, liberal Green Party leaders in the provincial capital of Graz moved to strip him of an honor bestowed on him by the city and to rename the local Arnold Schwarzenegger sports stadium.

In much of Europe, people paid little attention to the execution or expressed merely pro forma dismay about the United States’ continued use of the death penalty. But in Austria there was a sense of betrayal by a native son.

Many Austrians previously had thought that Schwarzenegger burnished the small country’s image overseas, showing that it could play on the world stage and bring European attitudes into American politics.

“In Austria, Schwarzenegger at the beginning of term as governor was the darling of everybody — of the press, but also of the politicians in Styria and in all Austria,” said Sigi Binder, the Green Party leader in the province. “His support for the Special Olympics was especially praised.

“But of course, the situation has changed quite a bit…. A little bit of a sense of shame has developed among our politicians,” she said.

Anneliese Rohrer, a popular columnist for Kurier, a daily newspaper, said the disillusionment among Austrians over Schwarzenegger was striking given the national excitement when he was breaking onto the American political scene. “We loved him when he got elected, and now people say, ‘Oh Arnie, he’s an American, he’s not an Austrian anymore.’ It’s a very emotional thing for them.”

Austrians began to distance themselves from Schwarzenegger when he turned down a request to commute the death sentence of Kevin Cooper in 2004, but political observers said they would have been willing to let that go. Cooper, who was convicted of the 1983 killing of four people in Chino Hills, was granted a stay by a federal appeals court and his case is pending.

“Even though he made that first death sentence [decision], people would have eventually forgiven him. He was criticized, but it wasn’t like that now,” said Klaus-Peter Schmidt, the foreign features editor at Der Standard, one of Austria’s two most respected newspapers.

However, Schmidt and others underscored that Austrians were less taken with Schwarzenegger now that he appeared to be losing his political cachet. “It does matter that Schwarzenegger was losing popularity in California. It did reduce his popularity and the interest in him here,” Schmidt said.

Conservative politicians in Austria continued to defend Schwarzenegger. Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, who personally opposes the death penalty, insisted Tuesday that California’s governor had abided by the rules of the American justice system. He termed “absurd” a proposal by a prominent Green Party member of parliament to revoke Schwarzenegger’s Austrian citizenship.

Although few people elsewhere in Europe followed the case closely, there was an outcry in some quarters over Schwarzenegger’s refusal to grant clemency in part because of reports that Williams had become a vocal opponent of gangs while in prison. Many Europeans oppose the death penalty, and it is outlawed by the 25-member European Union.

Writing a day before Schwarzenegger made his decision, the centrist French daily Le Monde asked: “Will the Republican governor, who is not by principle opposed to the death penalty, be influenced by his political concerns? Would an act of clemency offend his Republican grass-roots electorate, a year before the elections?”

Julien Dray, spokesman for the Socialist Party, said, “At this particular moment, when our country is so often criticized, we can be proud to have abolished the death penalty.” He also said the governor of California obviously “had a lot of muscles, but not much heart.”

Although Williams’ story has not dominated public debate in Italy, it did receive publicity, with Italian television crews dispatched to California and a recent flurry of newspaper articles.

The Vatican expressed strong disapproval of the execution, with a top aide to Pope Benedict XVI condemning it in keeping with the Holy See’s opposition to the death penalty. Cardinal Renato Martino, head of the Vatican’s justice and peace department, said capital punishment was “the negation of human dignity.”

But for many in Europe, the story seemed remote. In Britain, where capital punishment was abolished for almost all crimes in 1965, views split along liberal and conservative lines, with some visitors to Internet chat rooms defending Schwarzenegger’s decision and others decrying it.

In Russia, which has had a moratorium on the death penalty since 1997, Williams’ execution took place with little notice beyond a few brief news items.

“An overwhelming majority of Russian citizens never heard of Stanley Tookie Williams, nor read any books by him,” said Sergei Pashin, a retired federal judge and expert on jury trials in Russia. “In a situation where they hear [about] and often have to personally deal with armies of Russian bandits, they have no time to think about foreign bandits.”


Times staff writers John Daniszewski and Janet Stobart in London, Tracy Wilkinson in Rome, Sergei L. Loiko and Yakov Ryzhak in Moscow and Sebastian Rotella in Paris and Elisabeth Penz in The Times’ Vienna Bureau and Achrene Sicakyuz in the Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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