Canada's churches have applauded a decision by the country's Supreme Court on February 15 forbidding the extradition of two alleged killers to the U.S. state of Washington unless the United States authorities give assurances that the two men will not face the death penalty if convicted.

The Supreme Court's decision has been welcomed by the Canadian Council on Justice and Corrections (CCJC), a coalition of 11 churches which together have 14,000 congregations in Canada. The last execution of a criminal in Canada took place in 1962 and the country abolished the death penalty in 1976.

In a statement released after the Supreme Court decision, the CCJC said: "We strongly believe that neither our sense of morality or justice stops at the 49th parallel [which divides Canada and the U.S.] for any Canadian, or any Canadian legislator . …our church coalition . …[believes] unequivocally that state-sanctioned executions are wrong, in every case, for everyone, everywhere. Canada should always seek guarantees that the death penalty will not be carried out in such cases. Our extradition policy must affirm rather than undermine our country's official policy against the death penalty."

Canadians Glen Sebastian Burns and Atif Ahmad Rafay have been held in a jail in Vancouver, British Columbia, since they were charged with the brutal murder on of Rafay's parents and sister at their home in Seattle on July 13, 1994.

It is alleged that Burns battered the three people to death with a baseball bat while Rafay stood and watched. The pair, then aged 18-years-old, allegedly hoped to collect on the family insurance policy.

They were arrested a year later after a Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation during which they allegedly confessed to an undercover officer. Authorities in the U.S. then charged each with three counts of first-degree murder.

Under its Extradition Treaty with the U.S., Canada has the right to seek assurances that the death penalty will not be carried out. In 1997 Canada's then Minister of Justice, Allan Rock, cited the brutal nature of the crime and, when extradition proceedings began, he did not request assurances that the youths would not face the death penalty.

Rafay and Burns then went to the British Columbia court of appeal, arguing that the Canadian government was legally required to seek assurances that they would not face execution. The court ruled that the two had special protection as Canadian citizens under the Constitution, and ordered the minister to seek assurances. The federal government then sought a ruling from the Supreme Court. The process has taken six years.

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Last year the CCJC sent a letter to the current justice minister, Anne McLellan, declaring that the churches "joined with other Canadians who are repulsed by the horrific violence of the crime with which these two men are charged," but added: "Killing people who kill people to show people that killing people is wrong makes no sense."

Amnesty International and Canada's Criminal Lawyers' Association have also publicly opposed the extradition.

The Supreme Court noted in its ruling this month that the death penalty had now been effectively abolished in 108 countries, including all of the world's major democracies, except from some areas in the U.S., Japan, and India.

Lois Wilson, a former moderator of the United Church of Canada (UCC) and now a member of Canada's Senate, the upper house of Parliament, praised the Supreme Court's conclusion. She told ENI, "I think it is an excellent decision. I am impressed first of all that it was unanimous. I hope it puts to rest the whole issue of the death penalty in Canada and abroad."

Senator Wilson, who is also a former president of the World Council of Churches, was actively involved in the UCC's campaign leading up to the elimination of the death penalty in 1976.

Wilson said she participated in a Senate debate on extradition last year. "I was one of those who argued for it [extradition of alleged murderers] not being at the discretion of the minister of justice. … it is like Pilate washing his hands and letting others do the dirty work. If we don't allow the punishment here, we should not extradite people to places where they would face the death penalty."

The Senate rejected this theory, but Senator Wilson senses that the court decision changes the situation. "My stance is taken, not only from the point of view of the Christian perspective, but also in terms of the United Nations' covenants against torture and inhumane punishment which Canada has signed - including the right to life. I think to do one thing at home and another abroad, as we quite often do, is hypocritical. In this instance, I hope we have got integrity and consistency. I welcome the Supreme Court's decision."

The members of the CCJC are: The Anglican Church of Canada, Canadian Baptist Ministries, Christian Reformed Churches in Canada, Disciples of Christ in Canada, Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, Mennonite Central Committee Canada, the Presbyterian Church in Canada, the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), the Roman Catholic Church, Salvation Army, and the United Church of Canada.

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Related Elsewhere

Other coverage of the Rafay and Burns extradition debate includes:
Suspects pose a problemThe Vancouver Sun (Feb. 19, 2001)
Make deal to return Eastside murder suspectsThe Seattle Times (Feb. 18, 2001)
Murder accused stay putNorth Shore News (Feb. 18, 2001)
Ruling protects accused facing death penaltyOttawa Citizen (Feb. 16, 2001)
Death by extraditionThe Montreal Gazette (Feb. 16, 2001)

Previous Christianity Today stories about the death penalty include:

A Death Penalty Before the Crime | (Oct. 4, 1999)
Conservatives Rethink Death Penalty | (April 6, 1998)
The Lesson of Karla Faye Tucker | Evangelical instincts against her execution were right, but not because she was a Christian. (April 6, 1998)