Canada Won't Intervene in Death Penalty Cases

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the House of Commons last month.

hide captionCanadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper addresses the House of Commons last month.

Fred Chartrand/AP/The Canadian Press

Canada has not had its own death penalty since 1976 and, until recently, has fought hard to prevent its citizens from facing it abroad.

Now, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative government has reversed that long-standing policy.

According to Amnesty International, two Canadians are facing execution. One is in China, and the other is in Montana.

Ronald Smith pleaded guilty more than two decades ago to the execution-style killings of two young Native-American men near Glacier National Park.

Their decaying bodies weren't found for weeks. Despite the nature of his crime, Smith thought he might get to return home — until recently.

Inmate Surprised by Policy Change

Greg Jackson, Smith's attorney, says Canada's new policy took his client by surprise.

"We have been in active talks with the Canadian Consulate for the past year, and the Canadian consul was actually at the prison talking with Ron, reinforcing their support for Ron and his return to Canada, the day before the Canadian government made its announcement," Jackson said.

In a written statement last month, Harper said if Canada intervened in the Smith case, it would quickly become a question of whether the country is prepared to repatriate a double murderer.

Harper went on to say, "In light of this government's strong initiatives on tackling violent crime, I think that would send the wrong signal to the Canadian population."

In making his decision to no longer seek clemency, commutation or extradition for Canadians facing death in other countries, Harper explicitly said it would apply only to cases in "democratic" nations where offenders have been convicted and sentenced in a fair process.

Opponents Mount Legal Challenge

Human rights researcher and Amnesty International volunteer Mark Warren of Ottawa calls Harper's reasoning misguided.

"The argument the government is proposing is that because the United States is a democracy and it has the rule of law, there's no need for the Canadian government to intervene and ask for mercy on behalf of a Canadian citizen facing execution — as if everyone on death row in the U.S. got a fair trial," Warren says.

Last month, Harper's government also decided not to co-sponsor a U.N. resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty — which Canada has supported in the past.

Those two decisions have worried some Canadians.

Political science professor Allan Tupper at the University of British Columbia says there's a concern that the politically conservative prime minister has a "hidden agenda."

"People sort of see that a relaxed Canadian position in the international world might be a prelude to relaxing Canadians' thinking about domestic use of capital punishment," Tupper says.

But in his written statement, Harper said he has no desire to reopen the public debate on capital punishment in Canada.

Opponents of the new policy are still trying to put up road blocks. A team of lawyers is appealing the change in court, and two motions have been made in parliament that, if approved, would direct Harper to reverse his decision and again fight to protect Canadians facing execution anywhere in the world.

Hope Stockwell reports from Montana Public Radio in Missoula, Mont.

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