Mexico filed a complaint against the United States in the International Court of Justice today charging that American officials have violated the rights of all 54 Mexicans on death row in the United States and asking that their executions be commuted.
In its filing with the U.N. court in The Hague, Mexico argued that the United States violated the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, which guarantees people access to their country's diplomatic missions when accused of a crime in a foreign country.
Juan Manuel Gomez Robledo, the Foreign Ministry lawyer who filed the complaint, said state and local courts in the United States regularly assign Mexican defendants public defenders who "speak little or no Spanish and have no experience in death penalty cases." He said if the courts followed the treaty, Mexican consulates would provide defendants Spanish-speaking lawyers who are well-versed in U.S. capital cases, which would greatly improve chances of a fair trial.
"It's the difference between life and death," Gomez said.
Mexico has asked the court to recommend that the United States stay all 54 executions until the court rules.
It has also asked the court to recommend that the death sentences be reduced to life in prison and that the men be granted new trials with lawyers provided by the Mexican government.
Of the 54 Mexicans on death row, 28 are in California, 16 are in Texas and the others are in Oregon, Oklahoma, Illinois, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Arkansas and Ohio, Gomez said.
A U.S. government official said 100,000 Mexican nationals are in U.S. prisons, so sheer numbers make it difficult to comply with the Vienna Convention. In addition, he said, because the United States has so many local law enforcement agencies, it has been difficult to educate all of them about the treaty.
Today's filing follows an emotional case last August in which Texas executed a Mexican man, Javier Suarez Medina, after President Vicente Fox called President Bush and the state's governor, Rick Perry, to argue that Suarez's rights had been violated. Mary Robinson, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Union and various human rights groups also asked that Texas stay the execution pending a review of Mexico's objections.
But Suarez, who killed an undercover U.S. drug agent in 1988, was executed by lethal injection.
The case became a national crusade in Mexico, and Fox, with the backing of all political parties here, canceled a scheduled visit with Bush at his Crawford, Tex., ranch to show his displeasure. Mexico has no death penalty -- or even a punishment of life in prison -- and many Mexicans believe capital punishment is disproportionately applied to Mexicans and other minorities in the United States.
"What Mexico has done here is very important, and the people who are going to benefit most from this are Americans," said Sandra Babcock, a Minnesota lawyer working with the Mexican government.
Babcock said governments of the 164 other countries that have signed the treaty are less likely to honor it if the United States ignores it, which could have grave consequences for Americans arrested abroad.
Babcock said that although the State Department has tried to educate local law enforcement agencies about the treaty, there are no sanctions in U.S. law for violators.