The Canadian government should not abandon its longstanding policy of seeking to prevent the execution of Canadian citizens in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today.

Canada’s minister of public safety, Stockwell Day, announced on November 1 that Canada will no longer seek clemency for Canadians facing the death penalty in the United States. His remarks came in response to questions about Ronald Allen Smith, a Canadian-born man facing execution by lethal injection in Montana.

“Canada decided long ago that the death penalty has no place in a civilized society,” said David Fathi, director of the US Program of Human Rights Watch. “The Canadian government shouldn’t abandon its longtime policy aimed at preventing the execution of its citizens in the United States.”

Canada, which has not carried out an execution since 1962, abolished the death penalty in 1976.

The Canadian government’s announcement came less than a week after the American Bar Association (ABA) called for a nationwide moratorium on executions in the United States. Announcing the results of a three-year study, the ABA called the US death penalty system “deeply flawed” and “rife with irregularity.” The ABA expressed concern about inadequately trained and underfunded defense counsel, improper handling of physical evidence, and significant racial disparities in imposition of the death penalty.

The death penalty is also under scrutiny in the United States because of concerns that lethal injection – the most common method of execution – may in some cases cause extreme suffering. In a 2006 report, “So Long as They Die: Lethal Injections in the United States”, Human Rights Watch concluded that lethal injection, currently used by 37 states and the federal government, puts condemned prisoners at needless risk of suffering excruciating pain. Early next year, the US Supreme Court will hear a case in which two Kentucky prisoners allege that their anticipated execution by lethal injection would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the US Constitution.

Other recent developments have raised concern about the fairness of the death penalty in the United States. On September 25, lawyers for death row prisoner Michael Richard asked the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to remain open 30 minutes past its usual closing time so that they could file a petition to halt Richard’s imminent execution. The lawyers explained that a series of computer crashes in their office had delayed their preparation of the petition. The court refused, and Richard was executed later that evening.

“Americans are beginning to conclude that their death penalty system is irreparably broken,” said Fathi. “This is not the time for Canada to announce that it will no longer seek to prevent the execution of its citizens south of the border.”

In the past, Canada has sought clemency for Canadians facing the death penalty in the United States. A Canadian citizen, Joseph Stanley Faulder, was executed by the state of Texas in 1999, after the Canadian government unsuccessfully appealed to then-Governor George W. Bush to spare his life.

Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and unusual form of punishment and a violation of fundamental human rights.