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Amnesty International's Southern tour

The city of Atlanta held a contest for a slogan that would best illustrate why the city was chosen for the international eclat that goes with hosting the 1996 Olympic Games. The winner: "Atlanta _ Come Celebrate Our Dream."

Also keeping track of Atlanta's self-celebration was Amnesty International. That human rights organization was taken with what Atlanta said in its application for the games. Atlanta, its officials said, "embodies the values of human liberty and equality. As the birthplace of the civil rights movement and for many, the modern capital of human rights, Atlanta reflects the high ideals of Olympism."

But Atlanta is the crown jewel of the state of Georgia, where the death penalty _ as Amnesty has noted in a documented report to be released at the Olympics _ is implemented in a "racist, arbitrary and unfair manner."

The report tells, for instance, of a study of capital cases in the judicial district of Chattahoochee. During the 27 years covered by the study, "the death penalty was never sought for a murder of a black by a white."

Amnesty is becoming an insistent presence at the Olympics in coordination with Human Rights Watch and the Atlanta-based Southern Center for Human Rights. The latter law firm, which never lacks for clients on death rows in 11 Southern states, is headed by Steve Bright.

"It's a real embarrassment," Bright told the Atlanta Constitution, "when South Africa has done away with capital punishment, the state of Georgia is still burning people up in the electric chair."

The Amnesty events have been organized by the Western European section of Amnesty. There will be a tour of Georgia by Amnesty members and staff from various countries that have outlawed capital punishment. (Most of the civilized world no longer kills in the name of justice, and many nations are astonished at how primitive we remain.)

These human rights visitors will spend time in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi. Meanwhile, Amnesty will present a petition with nearly 500,000 signatures from around the world calling on Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, to declare a moratorium on new death sentences and on executions until a new Commission of Inquiry has been established to look into charges of racism and arbitrary imposition of the death penalty.

Amnesty also is sending its report on the culture of judicial death in Georgia to federal authorities in the hope that the Justice Department will look into whether some people get onto death row by affirmative action.

The designers of Amnesty's peaceful march through Georgia hope for press attention in the cities and towns through which they will travel. And they expect wide coverage in the European press because of the Europeans who have come here to persuade Georgia and other Southern states to at least do away with the racism and lack of due process in their systems of sometime justice.

Amnesty points out that while its "ultimate aim is the total abolition of the death penalty in Georgia and the U.S.A., we are urging the Georgia authorities to review the racial and arbitrary use of the death penalty in the state as a step toward abolition. We are not urging the Georgia authorities to abolish the death penalty, as we feel it would be unrealistic and possibly counterproductive at this stage."

Two-hundred-million Americans are expected to watch the Olympics on NBC. I wonder if any of the sportscasters will say anything about the Amnesty events. Maybe film star Susan Sarandon could be interviewed briefly on NBC about why she made Dead Man Walking and what she learned about residents on death rows in the process.

To provide balance to the story, the president could be interviewed on why he is such an enthusiastic supporter of the death penalty that he has led in the near destruction of habeas corpus, thereby ensuring that some innocent prisoners will be executed before they can get federal courts to thoroughly review their cases. Amnesty should bring its tour bus to the White House.

Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights.

Newspaper Enterprise Association

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