Death Sentence of Black Journalist Draws Flood of Worldwide Protests


New York -- Writers from around the world gathered here and in Paris this past Tuesday to denounce the pending execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal as an evil, racist act and to call for a new trial for a man they consider a fellow author.

Meanwhile, in Italy, deputies in that country's lower house called on the government to press the United States to lift the death sentence on the former radio journalist, who has become the subject of an international campaign backed by politicians, movie celebrities and writers.

Abu-Jamal's attorneys expect his scheduled Aug. 17 execution to be stayed while appeals continue. Nonetheless, that looming date just a few weeks away has escalated efforts on his behalf and created a sense of urgency among those already involved in his campaign.

Faxes have been traveling from country to country about his case with dizzying speed, and the Internet is buzzing with pro-Mumia information. On Internet news groups such as "soc.culture, african american, alt.conspiracy, rites human, alt.politics equality, alt.politics radical-left, alt.discrimination" and "alt.death penalty," more than 200 entries posted in a recent five-day period have spread the word about this once-obscure death-row inmate and have announced Save Mumia events from Oakland, Calif., to Columbus, Ohio, to Burlington, Vt.

At the news conference at the SoHo office here of PEN, an international writers' group, five writers spoke urgently. The best-known was William Styron, the Prize-winning author of "Sophie's Choice." "Pennsylvania, on Aug. 17, America and the world will be faced with the intolerable spectacle for the rite of state murder being enacted upon a man whose guilt has never been satisfactorily proved," Mr. Styron declared. "Only a stay of execution and the prompt ordering of a new trial can prevent what would be both a disgrace to justice and a human tragedy."

Mr. Styron, who has opposed the death penalty for years, said that he -- and the organization -- believed Abu-Jamal's 1982 trial was "so deficient in standards of judicial proceedings, so rife with errors" that a valid conclusion about his guilt has not been reached.

Christian Salmon, secretary-general of the International Writers' Parliament, went further. During a gathering of European writers at UNESCO headquarters in Paris, he compared Abu-Jamal's case to France's Dreyfus affair a century ago, when a young Jewish army officer was unjustly convicted of treason in a climate of widespread anti-Semitism.

Also in Paris, Chinese poet Bei Dao read a poem in honor of Abu-Jamal.

At the New York news conference, Fred Horstmann, administrator of a celebrity-laden committee raising money for Abu-Jamal's legal defense, read a letter from Abu-Jamal, thanking his fellow authors for their support. It ended with: "To use a phrase from my rebellious Black Panther days: Write on."

Mr. Horstmann then read the response Breyten Breytenbach, a white South African author and anti-apartheid activist, had made in Paris.

"Indeed, we shall write on. Your voice will not be silenced," Mr. Breytenbach wrote.

The president of the International Writers' Parliament, author Salman Rushdie, did not attend the Paris news conference and released no statement. Mr. Rushdie was condemned to death by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran for blasphemy.

It was Mr. Rushdie, though, who brought Mr. Styron into the campaign. Mr. Styron said in an interview that he had heard about Abu-Jamal's case but had not gotten involved until recently, when he received a fax from his writer friend.

"Because I know Rushdie, I thought I'd get in it, too," Mr. Styron said. He said he based his belief that Abu-Jamal's trial was unfair on materials he received from Mr. Rushdie, from PEN, and from an Op-Ed article by E. L. Doctorow in the New York Times.

Novelist Paul Auster, who wrote the screenplay for the movie "Smoke," said he also received a fax from Mr. Rushdie. He read the Doctorow piece, which outlines the defense's case that Abu-Jamal did not receive a fair trial and may be innocent.

Mr. Auster read an impassioned plea to Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to commute Abu-Jamal's sentence: "All eyes are on you, Governor Ridge; I am watching you. My fellow writers and colleagues are watching you. Tens of thousands of people around the world are watching you, and we are all praying you will do what is wise and just. Do us all proud, governor. Save Mumia Abu-Jamal."

According to Karen Kennerly, PEN's executive director, the organization opposes the death penalty in general and "calls for the commutation of any such penalty against any writer."

In Abu-Jamal's case, she said, the organization has gone further in calling for a new trial. The organization has a 10-point position paper on Abu-Jamal's case, which lays out most of the same points Abu-Jamal's attorney, Leonard Weinglass, made in his petition for a new trial.

It alleges that the predominantly white jury did not reflect the community, that Abu-Jamal's trial attorney was given few funds and was woefully unprepared, and that Abu-Jamal's membership as a teen-ager in the Black Panther Party was used against him in the sentencing phase of the trial. It also contends that two eyewitnesses had criminal records and could have been coerced by police and that Abu-Jamal's "confession" in the hospital may have been contrived by police.

Siobhan Dowd, PEN's human-rights chairman, said the group gathered information about the case from "defense attorneys, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch."

Prosecutors, who were not contacted by PEN leaders, contend that the evidence against Abu-Jamal was strong, based on eyewitness accounts of Abu-Jamal shooting Philadelphia police Officer Daniel Faulkner, who had just arrested Abu-Jamal's brother. Abu-Jamal was wounded by a shot from the policeman's gun.

Abu-Jamal's gun lying near him had five spent shell casings, which a police ballistics expert said were "consistent with," though could not be conclusively linked to, fragments inside the dead policeman, according to trial testimony.

Judging from the speeches here Tuesday, Abu-Jamal has gained support in part through his writings and his radio commentaries about prison life, the death penalty and racism. Abu-Jamal also has become a symbol of America's escalating rate of executions, which is particularly appalling in Western European countries like Germany, where capital punishment was abolished after the Nazi terror. He's also come to symbolize race and criminal justice in America, where so many black men are behind bars.

Pro-Abu-Jamal rallies with up to 1,000 people have been held in many European capitals since the death warrant was signed in June.

Pulitzer Julia Cass wrote this article for the Knight-Ridder News Service.

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