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Western Press Review: U.S. Death Penalty, Afghanistan, Belarus

Prague, 21 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Several commentaries in the U.S. press today discuss a U.S. Supreme Court decision this week banning execution of criminals who are mentally retarded. The decision reversed the court's 1989 ruling.


"The New York Times" hails the decision in an editorial headlined "The Court Gets It Right." The editorial says, "This time around, the court discovered a 'national consensus' against executing retarded people that it could not find in 1989."

"Three members of the court -- Chief Justice William Rehnquist and Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- joined in angry dissents. Justice Rehnquist was indignant on the matter of jurisprudence by 'opinion poll results,' but ignored the fact that it was that very instinct to hew to what the public seemed to want that led the court into this moral swamp to begin with."

The newspaper concludes: "The United States has been one of only three nations -- the other two are Japan and Kyrgyzstan -- that permit the execution of the retarded. Dozens of retarded convicts, most of whom had little understanding of the moral implications of their deeds, have been put to death here since 1976."


"The Washington Post" concurs, but conditionally. "The Post" says in an editorial: "Yesterday [the Supreme Court] changed its mind and held that the Eighth Amendment's ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment' precludes state killing of people with diminished mental capacities. The court's 6-to-3 opinion is cause for cheer among those repulsed by the practice of executing members of any of society's most vulnerable populations. The cheer is justified even though the majority came to the right answer in the wrong way. Unwilling to acknowledge that it erred the first time the justices considered this question, it produced an opinion based on weak arguments vulnerable to the barbs of the dissenting justices."


Writers in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" choose to differ. The newspaper editorializes that the decision amounts to legislating by judicial decree and is the result of, in the editorial's phrase, "transparent politics."

"The old saw that the Supreme Court follows the election returns needs to be revised. After yesterday's Atkins versus Virginia decision, we know the court will now make up its mind based on as little as a Gallup poll."

"We don't have a strong view on the issue at the heart of yesterday's ruling, which held that the execution of mentally retarded murderers violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. If we sat in a state legislature, we might vote against capital punishment in such cases, at least for the severely retarded. But we're not legislators, and neither is the U.S. Supreme Court."


"The Wall Street Journal Europe" also publishes a commentary by William Tucker, a contributing editor of the conservative U.S. magazine "American Spectator." Tucker says the court decision following a recent declaration in Illinois of a moratorium on executions provides an occasion to revisit an old question -- Does the death penalty deter crime?

"The sense is that, for the first time in years, supporters of the death penalty are on the defensive. So this is a good time to review the rationale for capital punishment, which is as compelling today as ever.

"Many question whether capital punishment is really a deterrent. How can it not be? Almost no one wants to die. Guilty criminals do everything to avoid being executed. They appeal their cases endlessly, accept plea bargains for life in prison -- even, if they are smart enough, avoid committing the crime in the first place."


Commentators also examine the results of Afghanistan's Loya Jirga, which ended earlier this week. "The Washington Post" comments in an editorial that the results were "decidedly mixed."

"Western favorite Hamid Karzai, a member of the dominant ethnic Pashtun group, was installed as transitional president, but the Loya Jirga itself played little role in his selection or in the government he appointed. Instead, Mr. Karzai was obliged to get his support from the minority ethnic Tajiks, whose forces captured Kabul with American help last fall, in exchange for continuing to give that militarily dominant faction a disproportionate share of power in his cabinet."

The newspaper continues, "Mr. Karzai also delivered major posts to several regional warlords, in hopes of buying their allegiance."

It concludes, "The Bush administration, which has been rhetorically generous but practically frugal in its support for Mr. Karzai, should concentrate on delivering the resources his new government will need to establish credibility in the next several months."


"The Washington Times" publishes today a commentary by Benjamin C. Works, director of the Washington-area-based Strategic Issues Research Institute. Works says ethnic differences and suspicions dominated the Loya Jirga process.

"The people of Afghanistan are reconstituting their nation from the rubble, through the most ancient form of 'democracy'; through consensus in a grand council, the Loya Jirga."

Works writes: "There are two underlying realities at play in this reconstitution of the Afghan nation. The first is the peoples' exposure to every major ideological constitutional misrule. The second reality is that the northern minority Tajiks and Uzbeks are a good generation ahead of the Pashtuns in terms of understanding and desiring a more modern and progressive state; hence, the suspicions between the Northern Alliance and the Pashtun tribal leaderships."


Two commentaries analyze the cause and effect of Karzai's assignment of Tajik leader Yunis Qanooni to a lesser post in the new government's cabinet.

In "Eurasia View," published by the Open Society Institute-New York, Camelia Entekhabi-Fard writes from Kabul in a news analysis: "Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun like most of the deposed Taliban leadership, tried to balance the influence of northern Panjshiri Tajiks in the cabinet. Yunis Qanooni, a Tajik leader of the old anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, seemed to be playing along when he resigned as interior minister on 14 June. But Karzai's demotion of Qanooni from Interior to the relatively ill-defined Education Ministry took many people, including Qanooni himself, by surprise."

The writer adds: "Karzai faces the daunting task of uniting Afghanistan's various ethnic and provincial leaders under a nationalist agenda. He will have to placate warlords like Mazar-i-Sharif chief Abdul Rashid Dostum and Tajik veterans like Qanooni, without ever appearing to defer to other interests. His handling of Qanooni's assignment hints at how sensitive these tasks are."


"The New York Times" publishes today a commentary by Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi. Zakhilwal is an economics professor at Ottawa University who co-wrote a recent human rights report on Afghanistan for the Center for Economic and Social Rights. Niazi is president of the Afghan Women's Association of Ontario. Both were delegates to the Loya Jirga in Afghanistan. They say that "the warlords won in Kabul."

Zakhilwal and Niazi write: "On the final night of the Loya Jirga, more than 1,500 delegates gathered for the unveiling of the new cabinet. Our hearts sank when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another. A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: 'This is worse than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?'

The writers continue: "Interim government ministers with civilian rather than military credentials were dismissed. Mr. Karzai did not announce the minister for women's affairs, prompting speculation that Sima Samar, the popular current minister in that post, will be removed once international attention shifts elsewhere."

They say: "Meanwhile, the key ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs remain in the hands of General Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah Abdullah, both from the dominant Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley. Yunis Qanooni, of the same faction, was switched from the Interior Ministry to Education, though he is reportedly resisting the move."

Other Western press commentary today examines U.S. foreign relations and Belarus-Russia relations.


Britain's "Financial Times" carries a news analysis by staff writer Richard Wolfe of U.S. President George W. Bush's foreign policy speech at the U.S. Military Academy this month. "Declaring that 'new threats also require new thinking,' he outlined a new era of national security threats and an entirely fresh doctrine of preemptive action." The writer adds, "Bush's national security staff is now drawing up the most radical overhaul of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War."

The writer says, "Officials who support the doctrine insist that preemptive strikes represent just one policy option among many in dealing with rogue states such as Iraq." But, he adds, "even officials who support preemptive action say the bigger impact of such a strategy may be to shift the rules of the world order against U.S. interests. If other nations, such as India and Pakistan, adopted preemption, the risk of nuclear war would rise sharply -- at a time when the U.S. ability to use its moral persuasion would be diminished in forcing both sides to back down."


Writing in the "Chicago Tribune," Steve Chapman contends that there is no evidence to support linking Iraq's Saddam Hussein to everything from the 11 September terror attacks to anthrax and reports of a dirty bomb plot. "You'd think the conspicuous lack of evidence tying Saddam Hussein to anti-American terrorism would argue against an invasion of Iraq. But the consensus in favor of a preemptive strike has reached near unanimity in Washington."

Chapman writes: "There's no reason to think Hussein would attack us if he had [mass-destruction] armaments. He could have used his chemical or biological weapons back in 1991, when we were pounding his army to pieces. He didn't, because he knew we would wipe him and his regime off the face of the Earth."

The writer continues, "The real danger would arise if we were to launch an invasion of Iraq -- which the Joint Chiefs of Staff have informed the president would require some 200,000 troops." He adds: "Worse, it would erase the one powerful reason Hussein has not chosen to use any chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons he may possess. If he's going to be destroyed regardless of what he does, why wouldn't he do his worst?"


Ian Traynor writes from Moscow in "The Guardian" that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka once dreamed of leading a new Slavic union, starting with a Russia-Belarus Union. Traynor says that Russian President Vladimir Putin has crushed the dream with ridicule.

The commentator writes: "And now Lukashenka's bubble has burst. The other day in Moscow, just after meeting the Belarus leader, Putin sounded the death knell for the Russia-Belarus union. He did not mince his words. 'Who wants to be friends and live together with someone weak?' Putin asked rhetorically."

Traynor says, "This week's unusually forthright declaration was a crushing humiliation for Lukashenka, dubbed Europe's last dictator."

He adds: "Privately, Putin was even cheekier to Lukashenka. Russia's federal structure divides the country into 89 regions. Belarus, Putin suggested to Lukashenka, could become the 90th."