The Cathedral Church of St. James, with all its sombre grandeur, is the perfect place for a vigil in defence of humanity. There’s an unmistakable power in its vaulted chambers, a towering sense of sublime, reverent serenity amid which any human being, regardless of their background or beliefs, can feel at peace, even connected. It’s not the iconography of God or what the cathedral’s nineteenth century Gothic-Revival architecture represents in a spiritual sense, but the building’s storied past, the mosaic of faces and lives that have passed through its doors since 1853. In a very real way, St. James Cathedral stands as a monument to humanity itself.
It’s profoundly fitting then, that St. James Cathedral should host Toronto’s participation in Cities for Life, a global effort by Amnesty International in pursuit of the total abolition of the death penalty. This year, the citizens of 1,100 cities worldwide gathered in celebration, memorial, and solidarity on November 30—the day in 1786 that Tuscany, by decree of Leopold II, became the first state in history to permanently do away with capital punishment.
“This cathedral church is no stranger to the execution of people,” The Very Reverend Douglas Stoute, dean of Toronto and rector of St. James Cathedral, told those in attendance on Monday. “People were executed just fifty or sixty yards from here for many, many years, behind the old court house. Poignantly for me, about six to eight months ago I re-buried about fifteen men who were hung at the Don Jail.” Recalling how development at Bridgepoint Health required the exhuming and re-interring of bodies from beneath the pavement—the site of the Old Don Jail—Reverend Stoute delved deep into the city’s past. “There was one very poignant story of a young man going to the gallows at the Don Jail,” he said, “and, as he went, [he was] claiming and proclaiming his innocence the whole way. I felt how important this work is, how important it is to recognize and celebrate the dignity of every human being.”
It’s an issue fraught with emotion on both sides, but according to a consensus of Monday’s speakers, an arguably simple one: the death penalty, regardless of its application or the crimes it punishes, must be abolished in all nations. James Lockyer, founding director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, and widely recognized for his defence of Steven Truscott, pointedly framed the issue in cold statistics. “One hundred and thirty-nine countries have abolished the death penalty,” he said, noting Togo, on June 23 of this year, as the most recent. “Fifty-nine have not.” After reading the names of those countries still practicing capital punishment, he remarked, “It’s depressing to hear those fifty-nine names read. It’s really a group of countries who are members of a club that engages in barbarity. Not a club that any country, in my view, should aspire to be a member of.”
It’s also a club whose membership, by simply claiming the death penalty as part of its legal framework, presumes an almost god-like infallibility. All too often, however, this most extreme and irreversible of punishments, like other penalties exacted under the law, is subject to the weaknesses of its very human, very equivocable system. “As a lawyer, you know the frailty of the justice system; you’re familiar with it,” said David Miller, proclaiming November 30 as Cities for Life Day in Toronto. “It’s incumbent upon all of us, I think, in a country and a society where we’ve seen people convicted of murder and then found to be innocent, to speak up very strongly.”
The fact that such posthumous aquittals happen at all is bad enough. Worse, according to Alex Neve, secretary-general of Amnesty International Canada, is that recent history is woefully replete with victims of the state whose condemning evidence was found wanting, and only when it was terminally too late. “At the end of the day,” he told those in attendance, “we know that only too frequently—tragically frequently—the death penalty inevitably claims innocent victims.” He noted that such convictions, from the United States to Belarus, often come at the end of trials in which the accused stood little to no chance of a fair defence. “We know, for instance, that the death penalty is invariably used in a discriminatory manner,” he said. “Overwhelmingly, it is the poor, it is minorities, [and] it is members of racial, ethnic, and religious communities who are put to death. And they are put to death often after terribly, blatantly unfair trials that deny them any meaningful chance to even begin to defend themselves against the crimes with which they’ve been accused.”
Neve underscored his point with the worldwide total of those killed by the state in a single year. “In 2008, more than 2,390 people were put to death in twenty-five countries,” he said. “Ninety-three percent were executed in only five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United States.”
Of all those nations, Iran was focused upon as a study in state-sanctioned violence and murder. The evening took a grave, personal tone with the testimony of Marina Nemat, an Iranian national incarcerated at Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison following the 1979 Revolution.
“I was thirteen when the Islamic Revolution happened in Iran in 1979,” she told the assembled, her voice breaking at times, “and one of my very first memories of after the revolution is walking down the streets and looking at newspaper stands, and on the first page of most of the newspapers, there was a picture of the bloodied bodies of the people who had been executed by the new government.” She recalled accusations of complicity with Savak, the Shah’s secret police, or the state’s assertion that the accused were high-ranking officials of the previous government. “Guilty or unguilty,” she said, “they were humans.”
Like other Iranian teenagers at the time, Nemat was deeply involved in acts of bold resistance against the Ayatollah and his regime. Along with many of her friends, she wrote articles against the new government, decrying its supplanting of mathematics and literature with outright propaganda. “We believed that it was our right to have freedom and democracy in Iran. That is what the revolution had promised, but that is not what happened.”
With thousands of others, Nemat was arrested in the early ’80s. “When I was arrested and taken to the prison, they had blindfolded me, they took me for interrogation, and they tied me up to a bare, wooden bed,” she recalls. “I was lying on my stomach, and they took off my shoes, and they lashed the soles of my feet.” Of those imprisoned at Evin, Nemat said, 99% were tortured, and 90% were under the age of eighteen. Like others who resisted, or were otherwise condemned for a myriad of varying reasons, Nemat was sentenced to die.
“Every day, girls were called for interrogation,” she said, “and they came back bloody and swollen. And many of the girls never came back.” Packed into a cell, sometimes with fifty or sixty other prisoners, Nemat dwelled in terrible limbo, awaiting the inevitable. “Every night we listened to gunshots that ended the lives of our friends, not too far away from where we were,” she said. “We sat in darkness, we hugged each other, and listened. Nobody cried.”
“Why? Because Evin is a place between life and death,” she said, “and when you enter a place like that, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is to lose your ability to feel.”
Marina Nemat counted herself fortunate, having won the freedom to speak for her friends. One of them, a fifteen-year-old girl, was executed at Evin in 1981. She had been Nemat’s classmate since the fourth grade. Others shared a similar fate. Nazanin Afshin-Jam, former Miss Canada and founder of Stop Child Executions, highlighted a veritable spree of state murders in her native Iran, punishments for “offences” ranging from theft to a woman’s self-defence against attempted rape. What is needed, she said, is for countries with influence to take the lead on such vital human rights issues.
Miller agreed, emphasizing the strength and inherent leadership of cities like Toronto to affect progress. “Cities have a duty to lead,” he said, “because just as we are speaking up on environmental issues, just as we are speaking up under the leadership of the mayor of Hiroshima against the atomic bomb, we have the ability and the capacity to speak up—and it’s a very powerful thing when the city of Toronto speaks up.” Highlighting the plurality and diversity of Toronto’s population, Miller spoke of the death penalty as a blunt instrument of state persecution, contributing significantly to the influx of cultures and ethnicities in a city that, for many, epitomizes sanctuary. Whatever their reasons, he reminded the assembled, Toronto is seen as a safe haven, a place “to seek safety, to seek relative prosperity, and to seek to live in a land of justice, human rights, and equality.”
“That is who we are as Torontonians and Canadians.”
Neve expanded that imperative to include the federal government, laying the onus squarely on Stephen Harper. In his remarks as master of ceremonies, Lockyer noted that for the first time in over fifty years, Canada’s international position on the death penalty has weakened under Harper’s leadership, rather aptly describing the trend as a “cold wind of change.” Neve continued where Lockyer left off. “In 2007, for instance, we announced that we would no longer seek clemency on behalf of Canadians sentenced to death in democratic countries,” he said, “a decision clearly intended to abandon Ronald Smith, a Canadian on death row in Montana, to the executioner’s fate.” And despite a United Nations General Assembly moratorium against executions in 2007 and again in 2008, Canada, while voting for the resolutions, refused to co-sponsor. “Many unexpected countries came forward and showed real leadership by co-sponsoring those resolutions,” he said, “but Canada did the opposite. We disappointed.”
But hope remains for Canada’s opposition to the death penalty to be renewed. With Harper’s first official state visit to China, he suggested, the prime minister “has a chance to restore Canada’s reputation as a country firmly opposed to the death penalty.” China, he said, was responsible for a minimum of 1,718 executions in the last year alone, more than half of the known executions around the world.
“Canada’s voice on the world stage when it comes to the death penalty has become far too silent,” Neve concluded. “Canada’s voice must be clear, it must be forceful, and it must be unmistakable.”
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.