Mongolia’s president announced a moratorium on the death penalty yesterday, a move that rights groups welcomed as a step toward changing Mongolian law to ban executions permanently.
Many in the opposition-held parliament, however, withheld their applause in protest of Mongolian President Elbegdorj Tsakhia’s speech, a sign that making a lasting change could be difficult.
While the power to commute any death sentences rests with the president, changing the law would require help from Mongolia’s opposition-dominated parliament. Mongolia’s legal system follows the former Soviet legal system, and many lawyers and legislators favor harsh punishment for criminals.
“The majority of the world’s countries have chosen to abolish the death penalty. We should follow this path,” Elbegdorj said.
“From tomorrow, I’ll pardon those on death row,” he said. “I suggest commuting the death penalty to a 30-year severe jail sentence.”
Changing the law is “clearly a harder step,” said Roseann Rife, the deputy program director for Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific office. “It involves a lot more people, and the opposition party has control of the legislature.”
Mongolia’s minister of justice and internal affairs, opposition lawmaker Nyamdorj Tsend, called the speech a risky political move.
“The president’s moratorium on the death penalty is a very complicated matter,” he told Eagle TV.
Rife said Elbegdorj has commuted at least three death sentences since taking office in May, but added that if he is not re-elected after his four-year term, Mongolia’s stance on executions could change “just like that.”
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.
Elbegdorj cited a couple of cases where appeals courts overturned death sentences and dropped the cases altogether. If the cases had not been overturned, “the Mongolian state would have killed innocent citizens,” he said.
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.
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