Human rights

Horror and injustice on death row – congress delegates call for abolition

Delegates at the Asian regional conference on the death penalty have issued a declaration calling on Asian countries that still implement capital punishment to work towards abolition and impose a moratorium on executions.

At the end of the two-day conference in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur, delegates called on Asian abolitionist states to take stronger actions in favour of universal abolition and to provide assistance and support to their national citizens who are on death row abroad.

“Every human being has the inherent right to life,” the declaration stated. “This right must be protected by law.”

Asia remained the continent with the highest number of executions in the world, the declaration added, and the death penalty was still applied in cases that did not come into the category of “most serious crimes”.

Delegates urged retentionist countries in Asia to remove the mandatory death penalty; publish transparent, regular, and reliable information on their implementation of capital punishment; reform the justice criminal systems to ensure fair trials; and reduce by law the list of crimes punishable by death.

They urged Asian abolitionist states to sign and ratify the second optional protocol to the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and to call on other Asian countries to do the same.

They asked judges in retentionist countries to use their discretionary power “to individualize sentences, to not sentence to death or to encourage juries to decide not to condemn to death”.

The main focuses of the conference on the second day were unfair trials and discrimination in the use of the death penalty, and the use of diplomacy to advance the abolitionist cause.

Lawyers and human rights activists from Taiwan, Indonesia, and Malaysia highlighted the many flaws in capital punishment cases, including the lack of consular access in the case of foreign nationals.

Delegates heard about cases involving prisoners who had serious mental disorders, but were sentenced to death nevertheless; interpreters who lacked knowledge of legal language and misled those in detention; and the financial and other limits placed on defence lawyers.

“Criminal justice is fragile,” said Saul Lehrfreund, co-executive director of the UK-based Death Penalty Project. “All it takes is one dishonest police officer, one incompetent lawyer, one over-zealous prosecutor and a mistaken witness, and the system just simply fails.”

P1010218 (640x480)Saul Lehrfreund

Lawyer Abdul Rashid Ismail, a former president of the Malaysia’s Human Rights Society (HAKAM), said there were elements in Malaysia’s drugs legislation that ran contrary to the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence. There were also problems with the clemency process, he said. The process was arbitrary and could not be challenged in court.

“Generally in a criminal trial,” he added, “it is a trial by ambush because you will never know what evidence will be produced by the prosecution.”

Harrowing testimonies

Those attending a workshop about working with victims’ families heard a harrowing testimony from New York-based photographer Toshi Kazama, who has devoted his life to documenting the realities of death penalty procedures and life on death row, and the experiences of victims of heinous crimes.

P1010291 (640x480)Kazama talks about the horrors of execution.

Himself a victim of a vicious attack that has left him with permanent brain damage and loss of hearing, Kazama is a vocal and committed opponent of capital punishment.

He was greatly affected by his discovery of juveniles on death row who, he said, “didn’t look like monsters, as I expected, but were just ordinary boys”.

Kazama has experienced the shock of seeing the mark from a burned human tailbone on an electric chair and now understands how a lethal injection shrinks the muscles in a person’s body and causes a lung collapse. He has heard from executioners who begged him to tell the world of the horrors of their job, and has photographed an execution chamber in Taiwan in which the detainee eats his or her final meal and later lies face down on a sheet to be shot either in the back of the head if they are organ donors, or the back of the heart if they are not. All this has left indelible marks on Kazama.

He has also been deeply moved by the capacity for forgiveness of those whose loved-ones have been murdered, not least a young Vietnamese woman who lost her whole family in a shooting by a crazed policewoman in a restaurant. “The scar in my heart never goes away,” the young woman told him, “but I can change how I look at my scar.”

P1010314 (640x480)Frenchwoman Sabine Atlaoui (pictured left), whose husband Serge is on death row in Indonesia, urged delegates to remember those whose relatives have been executed. Their pain, suffering, and sadness would last a lifetime, she said. “We’ve been through the same fate, we suffered the same anxiety, the same fears, and the same doubts. Today I think of them and I want them to be remembered. We need to look after those families.”

Serge Atlaoui was due to be executed along with eight other people on April 29, but was given a last-minute reprieve. He has protested his innocence since being arrested in a 2005 raid on a factory where ecstasy was being produced and has an appeal process underway in the administrative court.

No matter how many years a prisoner remains on death row, Sabine Atlaoui says, “you have to be ready; you always need to remember that it can happen at any time”.

Who is really being punished? she asks. “Those executed are gone. It’s the family that suffers: the parents, the children, the cousins, all the loved-ones.”

Sabine also spoke about the “cruelty and torture” of the media circus that surrounded the April executions.

Before her husband was sentenced to death, Sabine had no understanding of the death penalty, which had been abolished in France many years before. “I had no idea of the horrors and the consequences.”

She has been working very closely with the organisation Together Against the Death Penalty (Ensemble contre la peine de mort, or ECPM), which is based in France, and has given her much-needed support.

The path to abolition

P1010253 (640x480)Mongolian MP and former foreign minister Luvsanvandan Bold (pictured left) told conference delegates about Mongolia’s path to abolition.

There was a time during the communist regime in Mongolia when one in six adult men were executed, Bold said. “More than 700 Buddhist temples were burnt to ash and their monks were executed.” Mongolia had, however, learnt its lessons. “Under no circumstances is capital punishment acceptable. This is our belief today.”

Bold paid tribute to the murdered Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, who was killed in Malaysia in horrific circumstances in October 2006. He cited her case as a reason for governments to abolish the death penalty and set a “no killings” example for their citizens.

Two former police commandos were found guilty of Altantuya’s murder and were sentenced to death, but one of them is now in Australia and allegations about who may have ordered the killing reach up to the highest political level in Malaysia.

Altantuya, who had been working on sensitive defence contract negotiations, was shot and her body was blown up with military-grade explosives.

There have been no executions in Mongolia since June 2009 and in 2012 the country ratified the second optional protocol to the ICCPR. The death penalty will be officially abolished very soon with the adoption, during the current parliamentary session, of a new criminal code.

Bold cited some of the key reasons for the Mongolian government’s decision to abolish the death penalty. They included the country’s international treaty obligations, the right to life and human dignity, the risk of execution of innocent people, and evidence that the death penalty did not decrease the number of crimes in society.

To date, 98 countries have abolished the death penalty in all circumstances and seven have abolished it for common crimes. There are 35 countries in which there have been no executions for at least ten years.


More to follow.

Full final declaration