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January 18 2010

Mongolia: President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj announces a moratorium on executions and resolutely moves toward the abolition of the death penalty

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In a historic speech to Parliament 14 January 2010, Mongolian President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj solemnly announced the introduction of an official moratorium on capital executions, decreed the automatic reduction of all capital sentences to 30 years in prison and openly proclaimed his intention to totally and unconditionally abolish the death penalty as soon as possible.

The Community of Sant’Egidio expresses its warm appreciation of this surprising and courageous act of will to cancel the death penalty from Mongolian law once and for all.

In truth, his resolution was not an sudden decision. As a deputy 19 years ago, Elbegdorj proposed introducing a constitutional amendment eliminating the death penalty from the Central Asian country’s judicial system.

Nevertheless, the extraordinary nature of the presidential initiative is remarkable for its deeply humanitarian approach to justice and for its progressive approach to the respect for life and human dignity, an approach that has few precedents in Asia.

From the moment he assumed the presidency seven months ago, Elbegdorj has never intentionally signed an execution order and now he insists that a end must be put to a practice which he does not hesitate to define as the “shame” of the Mongolian penal system: the absolute oblivion of death row inmates and of their bodies after execution, hidden behind the most rigid state secret, so that their families have no idea where their graves are so that they can mourn.

Explaining his decision, the president first of all claimed that his right to concede clemency, even to those stained by the worst crimes, is a principle that must remain firm because it guarantees the safeguarding of the value of human life. He has been particularly concerned with the possibility of judicial error and with the risk of condemning someone who is innocent. This is particularly possible in Mongolia where the death penalty is contemplated for 59 different crimes. In just 16 months from 1937 to 1939, a total of 20,474 Mongolian citizens -- including 1,228 who were tried together -- were executed, victims of state persecution.

“The death penalty,” the Mongolia president said, “degrades human dignity and provokes injury, pain and resentment in both the families of the victims and the condemned themselves.” The death penalty, he said, flies in the face of the most ancient values of his country, which proclaim that life is the greatest richness of every man and woman.

“Far from taking the lives of its own citizens,” he said, “the state must exercise its power to prevent the suppression of human life in those situations where civil society, left to its own devices, is not able to guarantee that one person does not kill another.”

Responding to claims that his action goes against the will of the majority of Mongolia’s people, who favor the death penalty, he said that so far no country that has abolished the death penalty did so in response to pressure from the grassroots. But, he said, a state that is incapable of showing clemency cannot inspire trust among its citizens.

Elbegdorj said, “I intend to be a president who does not deprive any citizens of life in the name of the state. The right to life is absolute and cannot depend on anyone, even the head of state.” And, he continued, “There is no evidence to prove that abolishing the death penalty increases the crime rate. On the contrary, it has been widely demonstrated that maintaining it coincides with an increase in the most serious crimes, therefore, the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime.” 

The Community of Sant’Egidio deeply shares those convictions and supports and encourages President Elbegdorj in the not-easy path toward abolishing the death penalty in his country and hails his decision as an event of extraordinary relevance in affirming human life always and everywhere.

The work of the Community of Sant’Egidio with Tamara Chikunova, which led to the abolition of the death penalty in Uzbekistan, has also supported efforts to create a decisive change on an institutional level and within civil society to increase respect for human life and for justice without death in Mongolia. President Elbegdorj’s action 14 January is an important step that can be duplicated by other government in Asia in this year in which a Resolution for a Universal Moratorium will be presented again to the United Nations General Assembly.

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