Spain’s ex-US death row inmate speaks out

Former death row inmate Joaquin Martinez, who was acquitted of a double homicide in the US state of Florida after five years behind bars, will be campaigning for the abolition of capital punishment in an international congress to be held in Madrid this week.

Spain's ex-US death row inmate speaks out
Martinez was cleared in June 2001 of his double-murder charges by a Florida court. Photo: Christophe Simon/AFP

Twelve years after leaving death row in Florida, Joaquin Martinez still cannot abide traditional lightbulbs.

"At the time we still had the electric chair and just like in the movies,  the bulbs flickered and went out when they executed someone," said Martinez, who is visiting Madrid to join the fifth World Congress against the Death Penalty.

"I don’t have any normal light bulbs at home, just halogens," he said.

His hair impeccably brushed back, the well-dressed 41-year-old Spaniard was arrested in 1996 in Florida on suspicion of double murder before being found not guilty by the US justice system and freed in 2001.

"I still dream sometimes that I am a prisoner. I wake up with a shudder,"  he said in a presentation event ahead of the June 12-15 congress, organised by  the French lobby group Ensemble Contre La Peine de Mort (Together Against the  Death Penalty).

Organizers say they expect 1,500 people from 90 countries, including high-profile politicians such as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, to gather for the congress.

The debate will be punctuated by testimony from people who were once condemned to death or the relatives of those now living on death row.

Another Spaniard, 40-year-old Pablo Ibar, has now spent 19 years under lock and key in the same Florida death row that Joaquin Martinez left behind.

Arrested in 1994 for triple murder, Ibar was condemned to death in 2000. Ever since, his relatives have proclaimed his innocence.

Once a month, his 68-year-old father Candido Ibar, who lives in the United  States, drives for seven hours for a visit, sometimes of less than three hours,  held in a room where death row inmates gather around about 50 tables to talk with those close to them.

"He is the one who encourages me," Candido Ibar said in an interview with AFP, with a wry look in his tired eyes. “I think he sees me, already old. He knows how I feel and that gives him the strength to encourage me. He tells me:  'Don’t worry'."   

As much a sportsman as his father, who played the Basque handball game pelota, Pablo Ibar keeps in shape and pores over legal files to better follow his case while waiting to hear if the US justice system will grant him a new trial.

His alleged accomplice was found not guilty and freed at the end of last year, his family say. “Who are we to decide to take away someone’s life?” asked Candido Ibar.

"Especially when there have been several cases where the condemned have ended up being found innocent.” One of the goals of the congress, held every three years since 2001, is to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

“We are not here to point a finger but more to convince countries to get rid of this cruel, inhuman and degrading penalty,” said the head of French  lobby group organising the meeting, Raphael Chenuil-Hazan.

“Twenty or thirty years ago, two-thirds of countries were anti-abolition and practised the death penalty. Today that situation has reversed,” he added.

But the 58 countries that still carry out the death penalty, of which 25 do so regularly, “are obviously the hardest to convince,” Chenuil-Hazan said.

Ahmed Haou, 54, condemned to death in Morocco in 1984 and pardoned in 1999,  can testify to the anguish of death row.  “Every moment I thought they were going to execute me: it is an absolute  horror,” he recalled in Madrid.

Today he sees a "glimmer of hope", however, noting a de facto moratorium in  place since 1993 in Morocco where about 100 prisoners have been sentenced to  death.

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