THE HAGUE, Netherlands-- The United States must temporarily stay the execution of three Mexican citizens on death row in Texas and Oklahoma, the World Court ruled Wednesday.
In a unanimous decision, the 15-judge panel said that the delay was needed while the U.N. court investigates in full whether the men -- and 48 other Mexicans on death row in U.S. prisons -- were given their right to legal help from the Mexican government.
The World Court, officially known as the International Court of Justice, is the U.N.'s court for resolving disputes between nations. It has no power to enforce its decisions, and the United States has disregarded them in the past.
It is the third World Court case in five years against the United States dealing with the death penalty. In a nearly identical high-profile case in 2001 it found that the United States had violated international law by not informing a German citizen of his right to consular assistance.
Walter LaGrand was executed in Arizona despite an order to postpone his punishment until it had heard Germany's case.
Reading the ruling Wednesday, presiding Judge Gilbert Guillaume said the court supported Mexico's argument that executing the men would cause "irreparable" damage to their rights if the court later finds in Mexico's favor.
"The United States shall take all measures necessary to ensure that (the men) are not executed pending final judgment in these proceedings," he said.
U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands Clifford Sobel said the Justice Department was "studying the decision" and would comment as soon as possible.
"It's important to note that this is not a ruling on the merits of the case," he said.
It would be "premature" to say whether the United States will abide by the decision, Sobel said.
Sandra Babcock, a lawyer for Mexico, said she expects America to comply because "these types of orders are binding on the United States." By ignoring the decision, she said, the United States would send the impression that it "didn't care about the rule of law."
"Americans traveling abroad are more vulnerable than ever at this point in time, and if the United States disregards the order of the world's highest court on an issue that directly affects Americans abroad (consular assistance), I think that sets a very dangerous precedent."
Court spokeswoman Laurence Blairon said the court could in theory complain to the U.N. security council -- which can impose sanctions -- if the ruling is not obeyed.
Mexico's Ambassador to the Netherlands Santiago Onate said the decision was "a confirmation of international law."
The men whose executions have temporarily been barred are Cesar Fierro, Roberto Ramos and Osvaldo Torres Aguilera, all of whom had exhausted their U.S. appeals and whose execution date was soon to have been scheduled.
Fierro and Ramos are imprisoned in Texas, and Aguilera is in Oklahoma.
Of the three convicted men, Fierro's case is the best-known. He was 22 years old when he was convicted of the Feb. 27, 1979 shooting death of an El Paso taxi driver, Nicolas Castanon. Despite a ruling in a Texas appeals court that his confession was probably coerced, he was not granted a retrial. Fierro has been on death row in Texas longer than any other inmate.
Ramos, 48, was sentenced to death in February 1992 for killing his wife Leticia and his two youngest children, Abigail, 8, and Jonathan, 3, with a hammer.
Aguilera was convicted for the July 12, 1993, slayings of Francisco Morales and Maria Yanez during a burglary in Oklahoma City.
Mexico, which opposes the death penalty, filed its suit against the United States last month. While it asked the court to stay the execution of all 51 Mexicans on death row, the court said a stay was needed for only the three most urgent cases for now.
The court was expected to set a date Thursday for hearings to consider whether the prisoners' rights were indeed violated under the 1963 Vienna Convention on Consular Rights.
When the suit was filed last month, the United States argued that granting Mexico's request for a stay of all executions would be an unwarranted intrusion on the U.S. criminal justice system and U.S. sovereignty.
Elihu Lauterpacht, a lawyer for the United States, labeled the Mexican case a publicity stunt, and said that an order to stay executions in state prisons might be unenforceable for the U.S. federal government.
The Mexicans on death row in the United States are imprisoned in California, Texas, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma and Oregon.