Mongolia president says no to death penalty

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ULAN BATOR, Mongolia (AP) — Mongolia’s president announced a moratorium on the death penalty Thursday, a move that rights groups welcomed as a step toward changing Mongolian law to ban executions permanently.

“The majority of the world’s countries have chosen to abolish the death penalty. We should follow this path,” President Elbegdorj Tsakhia said in a speech to parliament.

“From tomorrow, I’ll pardon those on death row,” he said. “I suggest commuting the death penalty to a 30-year severe jail sentence.”

His announcement is far from a permanent shift, however. While the power to commute any death sentences rests with the president, changing the law would require help from Mongolia’s opposition-dominated parliament.

After the president’s speech, opposition lawmakers kept quiet in a sign of protest. Mongolia’s legal system follows the former Soviet legal system, and many lawyers and legislators favor harsh punishment for criminals.

Changing the law is “clearly a harder step,” Roseann Rife, the deputy program director for Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific office, told The Associated Press. “It involves a lot more people, and the opposition party has control of the legislature.”

Rife said Elbegdorj has been on record as opposed to the death penalty for some time.

“He’s only been in office since May and has commuted three death sentences that we’re aware of,” Rife said.

But if he is not re-elected after his four-year term Mongolia’s stance on executions could change “just like that,” she added.

Information on the death penalty is a state secret in Mongolia, and it is not clear how many people the country has executed or when the most recent execution took place. The office of Amnesty International Mongolia says at least five people were executed in 2008, and nine people were thought to be on death row as of last July.

According to Amnesty International, 95 countries have banned the death penalty, but 58 — including Mongolia — continue to use the death penalty for ordinary crimes. Other countries execute people only in extraordinary cases, such as crimes under military law, or have not executed anyone in at least 10 years, the group said.

Countries that continue to execute people include China and the United States.

Execution in Mongolia is by gunshot to the back of the head. The death penalty does not apply to women or to men under the age of 18 or over 60.

Before Thursday’s announcement, Mongolia had been considering changing its criminal code to limit the death penalty to cases of assassination and premeditated murder. Currently, the eight crimes that get execution include treason, espionage and certain cases of rape.

An Amnesty statement released Thursday said families of those executed in Mongolia are not told before the execution, and bodies are not returned to the family.

It said conditions on death row are reportedly poor in the impoverished country. One-third of Mongolia’s 2.7 million people live below the poverty line.