Former convicts on death row in the Middle East and North Africa described awaiting their dreaded fate as "daily torture" from which execution itself was a "deliverance," at an abolition conference in Rabat.
"I spent 10 years on death row in Morocco, and the hardest thing was the wait," Ahmed Hamou told AFP at the three-day conference, which brought together hundreds of officials and civil society representatives from the MENA region.
"In Section B, which is the death row ward at Kenitra prison (40 kilometres north of Rabat), a terrible silence prevails. At the smallest sound, your heart beats faster and you say to yourself: 'That's it. The time has come."
Arrested on political charges in 1983 in Casablanca, at a time when Morocco's largest city was experiencing widespread social unrest, Haou was sentenced to death the following year.
In 1994, under international pressure, he was pardoned by the late king Hassan II, father of the present monarch, Mohammed VI.
"In other wings of the prison, the opening of a cell door is synonymous with hope and freedom. But on death row, it can spell the end and creates an indescribable fear," said Haou, who described his ordeal at the Rabat conference.
"So the wait is like daily torture, and as you wait, execution itself comes to mean deliverance," he said.
A moratorium on executions in Morocco has been in place since 1993, but around 100 convicts remain on death row, with no Arab country having yet abolished capital punishment.
The French ambassador on human rights, Francois Zimery, argued that the north African kingdom was able to play a pioneering role on the issue, pointing to the peaceful atmosphere of the conference, the 1st of its kind.
In their efforts to see the death penalty outlawed, local NGOs also refer to Morocco's new constitution, adopted by referendum last year, which stipulates "the right to life."
Antoinette Chahine, a Lebanese former death row inmate participating in the abolition conference, spoke of her two years in prison in Beirut, after she was wrongly convicted of murder in 1997 and sentenced to death.
"Women sentenced to death in Lebanon are not executed, but no law explicitly mentions that," she told AFP.
"But in spite of that, the wait was terrible, until I was acquitted by the court," Chahine said.
"The uncertainty makes every moment an unbearable form of torture. If I had been executed, the judiciary would have killed an innocent person. That's why I have devoted myself to abolishing the death penalty," she added.
French ambassador Zimery also spoke of the "human realities" involved, and stressed that having a moratorium in place "means there are people on death row, who suffer from the torture and uncertainty of the next day."
France has launched an international campaign, and has urged Morocco to take the lead in being the first Arab country to do away with the death penalty.
According to Amnesty International, the MENA region has the highest execution rate in the world relative to the size of its population.
Source: Agence France-Presse, October 22, 2012