By Sarah Mac Donald - 26 October, 2014
Source: Vatican Radio/VIS
Pope Francis has urged people of good will to fight for the abolition of the death penalty in “all of its forms” and for the improvement of prison conditions.
In a speech to members of the International Association of Criminal Law, the Pontiff also addressed the need to combat human trafficking and of corruption and stressed that the enforcement of legal penalties must always respect human dignity.
In a passionate discourse to jurists assembled in the Vatican for a private audience, Pope Francis said that a life sentence is really a concealed death sentence, and that was why he had it annulled in the Vatican Penal Code.
Many of the off-the-cuff comments during the Pope’s speech considered how politics and media often act as triggers inflaming “violence and private and public acts of vengeance” towards a scapegoat.
Recalling the words of St John Paul II, who condemned the death penalty – as does the Catechism, Pope Francis decried the practice and denounced “so-called extrajudicial or extra-legal executions” calling them “deliberate homicides” committed by public officials behind the screen of the law.
“All Christians and people of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms, but also for the improvement of prison conditions in the respect of the human dignity of those who have been deprived of freedom.”
“I link this to the death sentence. In the Penal Code of the Vatican, the sanction of life sentence is no more. A life sentence is a death sentence which is concealed”, he stated.
Pope Francis also had words of harsh criticism for all forms of criminality which undermine human dignity.
He described remand or detention of a suspect as a “contemporary form of illicit hidden punishment” concealed by a “patina of legality”, as it enforces “an anticipation of punishment” upon a suspect who has not been convicted.
From this, the Pope pointed out, derives the risk of multiplying the number of detainees still awaiting trial, who are thus convicted without benefiting from the protective rules of a trial.
In some countries, he warned, this happens in some 50% of all cases with the trickledown effect of terribly overcrowded detention centres.
“The deplorable conditions of detention that take place in different parts of the world are an authentic inhuman and degrading trait, often caused by deficiencies of criminal law, or by a lack of infrastructures and good planning. In many cases they are the result of an arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom,” Pope Francis criticised.
He also spoke of what he called “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments and sanctions,” and compared detention in maximum-security prisons to a “form of torture”.
The isolation imposed in these places causes “mental and physical” suffering that result in an “increased tendency towards suicide”.
Torture, he pointed out, is used not only as a means to obtain “confession or information” but “is an authentic ‘surplus’ of pain that is added to the woes of detention. In this way torture is used not only in illegal centres of detention or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, in rehabilitation centers for minors, in psychiatric hospitals, in police stations and in other institutions for detention or punishment”.
Pope Francis went on to say that children must be spared the harshness of imprisonment, as must, at least in a limited way, older people, sick people, pregnant women, disabled people as well as parents if they are the sole guardians of minors or persons with disabilities.
The Pope also highlighted one of the criminal phenomena he has consistently spoken out against – human trafficking which, he said, is the result of that “cycle of dire poverty” that traps “a billion people” and forces at least 45 million to flee from conflict.
“Based on the fact that it is impossible to commit such a complex crime as is the trafficking of persons without the complicity, be it active or of omission of action of the State, it is evident that, when the efforts to prevent and combat this phenomenon are not sufficient, we find ourselves before a crime against humanity.”
He continued, “This is even truer if those who are responsible for the protection of persons and the safeguard of their freedom become an accomplice of those who trade in human beings; in those cases the State is responsible before its citizens and before the international community”.
Pope Francis also devoted a major part of his discourse to corruption.
The corrupt person, according to the Pope, is a person who takes the “short-cuts of opportunism” that lead him to think of himself as a “winner” who insults and persecutes whoever contradicts him.
“Corruption”, the Pope said “is a greater evil than sin” and more than “be forgiven, must be cured”.
“The criminal sanction is selective. It is like a net that captures only the small fish leaving the big fish to swim free in the ocean. The forms of corruption that must be persecuted with greatest severity are those that cause grave social damage, both in economic and social questions – for example grave fraud against public administration or the dishonest use of administration”.
Concluding, Pope Francis exhorted the jurists to use the criteria of “cautiousness” in the enforcement of criminal sanctions.
This, he affirmed, must be the principle that upholds criminal law: “The respect for human dignity must operate not only to limit the arbitrariness and the excesses of State officials, but as a criteria of orientation for the persecution and the repression of those behaviors that represent grave attacks against the dignity and the integrity of the human person”.