Pope Francis issued a call on Thursday for countries to abolish capital punishment and eliminate sentences of life imprisonment because "a lifetime in prison is a hidden death sentence."
At a Vatican meeting with representatives from the International Association of Criminal Law, the pope said that he finds it hard to believe that countries should not have any measures other than capital punishment to defend their people.
"All Christians of people and 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," the pontiff said, and added that he includes lifetime jail terms as one of those forms.
He mentioned the need to "improve prison conditions with respect to 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 a life sentence is no more. A lifetime in prison is a hidden death sentence."
Pope Francis added that cases where a person is given the death penalty might be subject to judicial error, and could be used by totalitarian and dictatorial regimes against opponents and minorities.
"The deplorable conditions of detention in different parts of the world are authentically inhumane and degrading, often caused by deficiencies of criminal law, or by a lack of infrastructures and good planning."
"In many cases" he said "they are the result of an arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons deprived of freedom." He also made it clear that he views maximum-security prisons as a pretext for torture.
The Pope cited studies by organizations defending human rights, which say that the absence of motive, lack of communication and not seeing other people causes mental and physical problems. Minors and the elderly should not have to serve prison sentences, Pope Francis added.
"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," he concluded.
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