The Australian
By Matthew Westwood

AMERICAN author and nun Helen Prejean has linked the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay to attitudes that condone the death penalty.

Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, about inmates on death row, said the inhumane treatment of terror suspects on the island was a corruption of US values.

“Guantanamo Bay is an abhorrent aberration of everything that my country ought to be about,” she said in Sydney yesterday. “I think it’s because we do execute people. It just so smacks of empire.”

Prejean said the release of Australian terror suspect David Hicks should be a priority.

“When you have a human life caught in that impossible situation where you don’t have recourse to any of the means of justice, you want to get him out of there,” she said.

Prejean is in Australia for the cast announcement of an opera based on her book. The New Zealand-born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes will reprise the role of convicted killer Joseph de Rocher, which he sang in an Adelaide production in 2003.

In a surprise casting move, broadcaster Alan Jones has a role in the opera as a lawyer.

“Obviously Alan is completely against the death penalty,” producer Nicole Alexander said.

“Bringing in somebody who is directly involved in the media brings up important discussion about this topic.”

Prejean became a campaigner against the death penalty when, in 1984, she fought to save from execution death row inmate Patrick Sonnier. She accompanied him to the electric chair and told him he would not die without seeing a loving face. Dead Man Walking was published in 1993 and director Tim Robbins made it into a movie with Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

Prejean said her opposition to capital punishment was grounded in her Christian belief to help the poor. Executed prisoners were commonly poor and black. But attitudes in the US were changing. For the first time, recent polls had supported life sentences slightly over the death penalty.

Asked about the proposed joint appeal to Indonesia’s Constitutional Court on behalf of the Bali bombers and three of the Bali Nine, Prejean said: “Once you lump things together, especially where death is the penalty, there’s a blurring that begins to happen, and life gets even more cheapened.”

The opera of Dead Man Walking opens in Sydney in September.