Doing it for Zare

Everton McLean
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Students launch campaign to stop executions of people who committed crimes as children

A picture of Behnam Zare is posted at the top of the website www.achildisachild.com. The Iranian boy looks into the distance, his hair slicked back, his eyes focused on something up ahead.

It's a similar pose to the one leaders take when they want to look visionary - staring bravely into the future.

Students from local high schools are shown holding a poster for the achildisachild.com campaign an online petition and awareness campaign launched by Newfoundland and Labrador teenagers to end the execution of youths in other countries. The poster is of

A picture of Behnam Zare is posted at the top of the website www.achildisachild.com. The Iranian boy looks into the distance, his hair slicked back, his eyes focused on something up ahead.

It's a similar pose to the one leaders take when they want to look visionary - staring bravely into the future.

But for Zare, that future was short and dim. At the age of 15, he killed an acquaintance in a fight and was convicted of murder. He was held until he turned 18 - the age after which the United Nations convention against executing children no longer applies - and was hanged in August 2008 without so much as a call to his mother.

Now, his story has inspired high school students in St. John's, Mount Pearl and Deer Lake to campaign to make sure youths are no longer sentenced to death and face the same fate as Zare.

High school students at Holy Heart of Mary, St. Bonaventure's College, O'Donel, St. Kevin's and Deer Lake's Elmwood high schools have created the achildisachild.com website to raise awareness and gather signatures for a petition against youth executions.

They plan to present the petition to the United Nations in hopes of getting a stronger stance on the issue from the organization.

Jeremy Dyer, a Grade 11 student and president of Holy Heart of Mary's Amnesty International group, said students were appalled to learn that people their age are being killed for crimes committed as children.

"I think it's an incredibly important cause to be a part of because innocent children are essentially dying and in a lot of cases they aren't given fair trials and they aren't given basic human rights," he said.

"I think it's up to us to advocate and bring an end to it."

Growing support

As of Thursday evening, more than 900 people had signed the online petition after just nine days of campaigning. Dyer said the use of the Internet and other innovative communication methods is helping spread the word.

They even have "viral cards" - trading cards with Zare's picture on the front and information about the campaign on the back.

Dimitra Kusudi, a Grade 11 student at St. Bonaventure's College, said she hopes Zare's image and story can convince people to take a stand against the execution of youths.

"When I was first introduced to it I really didn't know anything about (youth executions)," she said.

"I was shocked. I thought that this was all something of the past. I didn't think that it would keep going throughout the world, happening to people who were so young and innocent."

Dennis Browne, a local lawyer and law instructor who teaches some of the students, said the campaign is gaining traction. It even has the support of Canadian physician and activist James Orbinski, who headed Doctors Without Borders when the organization won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999.

In a message of support, Orbinski called the awareness campaign and petition "a critically important student-led initiative to stop the execution of young offenders.

"I urge students, citizens and adults everywhere to sign this petition," Orbinski said.

"This practice of executing young offenders must be banned worldwide and the United Nat-ions Conventions respected."

Hundreds held in jail

Browne said the worst offenders, countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Somalia, have hundreds of young offenders behind bars, holding them until they turn 18 and then executing them.

In many cases, the young people accidentally killed another person in a fight - unintentional deaths that Browne said would likely be considered manslaughter in Canada.

Heather Carroll, another Grade 11 student at St. Bonaventure's College, said the issue shows how important it is to protect human rights.

"We take so many rights and freedoms for granted because our country has been committed to the United Nations (conventions)," she said.

"It's so unfortunate that so many young lives are being taken as we speak. We really need people to get together and see the faces of human beings just like you and me (who are being executed)."

To sign the petition or join the group's Facebook page, visit www.achildisachild.com.

emclean@thetelegram

Organizations: United Nations, Amnesty International, Doctors Without Borders

Geographic location: Bonaventure, Deer Lake, St. John's Mount Pearl Elmwood Iran Saudi Arabia Yemen Somalia Canada

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