Hundreds of anti-death penalty activists are gathered for a two-day Asian regional conference in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The first day’s plenary session focused on capital punishment in drugs cases and delegates heard that it is not the deterrent it is claimed to be.
It is estimated that there are about 1,000 people on death row in Malaysia and about half of them have been convicted of drugs offences. In many other Asian countries, most of those executed have been found guilty of drug trafficking.
The number of people executed in Asia remains higher than the total number of executions elsewhere in the world.
In his keynote speech, minister in Malaysia’s prime minister’s department, Paul Low Seng Kuan, said that in recent years the number of people sentenced to death for drug trafficking in Malaysia had increased and this placed a question mark over whether the death penalty was an effective deterrent.
The figures lent support to the argument that only unsuspecting drug mules were being caught whilst the drugs king-pins were getting away, Low said. “When policies are not working, they should be changed.”
In Malaysia, the death penalty is mandatory for three types of offence: murder, drug trafficking, and offences related to terrorism. The government is reviewing its policy and considering reducing the maximum sentence for drug trafficking to life imprisonment.
Low said the mandatory death sentence should be reviewed for drug offences. “I personally share the view,” he said, “that the death penalty has its place, but only in the most serious of crimes and also where there is no reasonable doubt that the suspect is guilty.”
He said there was “precious little we can hold on to” in the promises of the Malaysian government to reform the death penalty laws. A de facto moratorium, he added, would not be enough.
“The death penalty is a barbaric form of punishment inflicted by the state to legitimise the deprivation of human life. It is compounded in its cruelty by the prolonged and indefinite incarceration of the convicted person in death row. The uncertainty, coupled with the fear of the inevitable, tantamounts to physical torture.”
Delegates to the KL conference heard from a judge in Taiwan who said he used to firmly believe in retribution and the philosophy of “an eye for an eye”, but has now concluded that the possibility of wrongful conviction is too high for the death penalty to be a just solution. “Wrongful conviction is not something a judge can avoid,” Judge Chin-hsein Chen said through an interpreter.
In her welcome speech, Chow Ying Ngeow from the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) spoke about the recent case in Taiwan of the murder of a young girl. To calm public anger, the government hastily executed six people for the crime, she said. “Our colleagues and friends in the Taiwan Alliance Against the Death Penalty and others in the abolition movement received hate messages and even death threats. The murder victim’s mother, who is against the death penalty, was condemned by critics who said she did not love her daughter.”
Delegates also heard from Julian McMahon, the lawyer for two of the Bali Nine drug smuggling gang, Myuran Sukamaran and Andrew Chan, who were executed in Indonesia on April 29.
Chan and Sukamaran are among 14 people who have been executed in Indonesia in 2015.
McMahon (pictured left) says there is a political motive behind the executions that have taken place in Indonesia this year. President Jokowi, he said, had no interest in examining the merits of the cases.
The lawyer said, however, that there were positive signs in Malaysia, and a steady momentum towards possible change in the death penalty legislation.
McMahon told delegates about Australian Van Tuong Nguyen, who was executed in Singapore on December 2, 2005 after being convicted of drug trafficking. “I was with his mother and brother at the prison on the afternoon before he died. He was a changed person. He was religious and was completely reformed.”
If Van Tuong Nguyen’s conviction occurred today, McMahon said, he would not be executed because of changes in the law in Singapore.
McMahon spoke of the pain suffered by the young man’s relatives. “Their grief was immense. It was the most intense moment of grief I have ever experienced.”
The lawyer also spoke of the effect on relatives of the treatment of death row inmate in Indonesia Mary Jane Veloso, who is a single mother of two young boys. The 30-year old Filipina maid was convicted of drug trafficking and had been due to be executed in April along with eight other detainees, but was given a last-minute temporary reprieve. Her family did not find out about the reprieve until after the other executions, however, and thought she had been killed. “The shots rang out and the family found out afterwards that she was alive,“ McMahon said.
The death penalty, McMahon says, is having no effect on the drug problems in Indonesia. “This is about politics, not anything else.”
McMahon spoke of the “enormous long process of rehabilitation” of Chan and Sukamaran. They had been transformed from “typical punk criminals” into people who were devoting their lives to rehabilitating other prisoners. “There were numerous prisoners offering themselves up to die on their behalf,” McMahon said. Chan and Sukamaran had converted part of the prison into a “sanctuary of hope and safety”. Sukamaran prevented the gangs from operating there, McMahon said, and he also became an accomplished painter.
Six countries in Asia – Cambodia, Timor-Leste, the Philippines, Nepal, Bhutan, and Mongolia – have abolished the death penalty and six others – Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, and South Korea – are abolitionist in practice.
Since the beginning of 2015, some countries, including Pakistan and Singapore, have resumed executions after the death penalty was suspended and others, including Sri Lanka, have plans to reintroduce capital punishment.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has concluded on several occasions that drug trafficking does not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes”. Imposition of the death penalty in such cases therefore goes against Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.