PARIS — Governments and campaigners on Sunday urged a worldwide end to the death penalty, singling out the United States, Iran and China and denouncing executions of children and other vulnerable groups.
Japan, which counted 107 prisoners on death row as of last month, saw one of the first demonstrations to mark Sunday's action called by the Paris-based World Coalition Against the Death Penalty.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged "all countries where the death penalty is still in force to abolish it and meanwhile set up a moratorium on executions and death sentences."
In a statement marking the eighth World Day Against the Death Penalty, he cited the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, a woman sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, whose case has provoked international outrage in recent months.
About 70 people, including Iranians, marched in the Ginza shopping district in Tokyo waving banners urging abolition -- a small turnout in a country where a survey in February showed 85 percent of people backed the death penalty.
Among the major industrialised democracies, only Japan and the United States carry out the death penalty, according to the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International.
Amnesty ranks China as the country that commits the most executions, with the number believed to be in the thousands in 2009 although its leaders refuse to give figures. Iran ranks next with 388 executions recorded last year.
The World Coalition said this year's protest day was dedicated to the United States, where in 2009 some of the states that retain the penalty executed 52 people overall and sentenced 106 to death.
"It is hoped that this world day will strengthen the trend towards abolition in the USA and also the trend towards universal abolition," the coalition said on its website, listing protests planned for Sunday in Asia, Europe and the Americas.
"There is still a long road to travel to abolition, for countries continue to apply this punishment, sometimes on a massive scale," Kouchner said.
"Too often, minors and those with mental disabilities are executed. These executions are sometimes carried out in public or in barbaric conditions fit to appal the conscience."
Switzerland's Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey echoed the call, urging "the suspension of executions in cases where international law restricts the death penalty, as for the most vulnerable groups."
Amnesty says Iran and Saudi Arabia execute people who were under 18 at the time of the crimes.
Amnesty's Spanish branch held a protest in Madrid, where a statement was read out denouncing the death penalty as "premeditated murder in cold blood at the hands of the state and in the name of justice."
About 300 people gathered in front of Paris's Pompidou Centre museum in a demonstration in which they staged mock-hangings.
France, Switzerland and Spain last week launched the International Commission Against the Death Penalty which aims to establish a worldwide moratorium by 2015.
In Mauritania, where the death penalty remains law though no executions have been carried out there for 20 years, civil groups said Sunday they had set up a national committee to push for abolition.
Britain added its voice to the protest in a statement by Jeremy Browne, a junior foreign minister.
"The death penalty fundamentally undermines human dignity. There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that it holds any value as a deterrent," he said.
He hailed gestures including a Kenyan appeal court's ruling this year that the mandatory death penalty for murder was unconstitutional and a recent moratorium on executions in Mongolia.
"It is also an encouraging start that China has expressed its intention to reduce the numbers of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 68 to 55," Browne added.
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