The U.S. execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh on Monday unleashed condemnation across Europe on the eve of U.S. President George W. Bush’s first official visit to the continent.
European opposition to the death penalty outweighed abhorrence at McVeigh’s crime when he was put to death by lethal injection at an Indiana prison for a 1995 blast that gutted a federal office building and killed 168 people.
Critics of capital punishment called it a barbaric, blood-thirsty way of making McVeigh pay for his crime.
“By executing the first federal death row prisoner in nearly four decades, the USA has allowed vengeance to triumph over justice and distanced itself yet further from the aspirations of the international community,” the London based human rights group Amnesty International said.
America’s penchant for the death penalty puts it ethically at odds with its traditional European allies, which have all banned it. The last person executed in the European Union was killed by guillotine in France in 1977.
“The death penalty is a barbarism inappropriate to our times,” said Antonio Maria Pereira, president of the Portuguese human rights group Law and Justice.
Controversy surrounding McVeigh’s execution could cast a shadow over Bush’s five-nation tour, which is expected to draw street protests not only against the death penalty but also against his policies on missile defence and global warming.
Some European media have depicted Bush as a “serial executioner” because of his record as governor of Texas where 152 executions took place during his nearly six years in office.
The United States and Japan are the only two rich, industrialized democracies that still regularly put convicted criminals to death.
Many Europeans are puzzled that the United States, a country that holds itself up as a model of democracy and human rights, continues to carry out death sentences.
McVeigh’s execution had particularly strong resonance in Spain, where Bush was due to arrive on Tuesday morning on the first stop of his European tour.
Joaquin Martinez, a 30-year-old Spaniard who was convicted and then cleared of double murder in the United States, returned home on Sunday after spending three years on Florida’s death row.
Martinez’s ordeal sparked public outrage in Spain, which is still haunted by memories of thousands of summary executions carried out during the 1939-1975 dictatorship of Generalisimo Francisco Franco.
“This doesn’t solve anything. The politics aren’t based on justice,” said Pepe Mejia, spokesman for a coalition of Spanish groups planning protests against Bush’s visit to Madrid.