Friday, July 14, 2006


To kill or not to kill?
Umran Kadir

It came as quite a surprise to me that jury trials in Malaysia were abandoned in 1995 due to cost and difficulties in finding qualified jurors.

It was thus a pleasant turn of events to read about the Attorney-General's recent suggestion of reintroducing juries. As we all know, the Attorney-General's bright idea was promptly extinguished by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz. In his justification Nazri bluntly accused Malaysians of being racist and amenable to bribery.

Given the furore raised when Reader's Digest recently labelled KL the third rudest city in the world, I immediately wondered what studies or data Nazri had in his possession to back an even more slanderous allegation. And how could the government place a price tag on democracy? Would the powers-that-be next claim that elections are costly and unnecessary as the outcome is already certain?

Arising from the above events I intended to write today about why jury trials are in many ways the epitome of the democratic process. Having a jury as opposed to a single judge decide on the facts of a case also provides more surety, as with a jury of seven a minimum five-two majority is required for a firm verdict. The accusation that Malaysian jurors are not legally trained is irrelevant as judges normally guide juries on points of law.

In researching the history of jury trials in Malaysia I came across a point which forced me to step back and examine the larger picture. Jury trials were introduced to Malaysia subsequent to independence and they have only ever been an option for capital cases - cases in which the accused face the death penalty.

In my view, the argument over whether we reintroduce jury trials for capital offences misses the point. Whether it is a judge or jury which sentences a person to death, blood remains on the collective hands of our society. Hence the title of this piece: "To kill or not to kill?", for that is the real question we should be asking ourselves.

On June 28, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk M. Kayveas clarified that the government stance that the death penalty is here to stay as it reflected the government's seriousness in dealing with crime. This is an inexcusable position to take when international studies overwhelmingly support the notion that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime. Shortly after Kavyeas made his statement, reports surfaced of death row inmates who have been languishing in Malaysian jails for more than 20 years; apparently some of the Pardons Boards meet very infrequently.

Is this the sign of a criminal justice system which is fair, just and humane?

Moreover, the ugly truth is that in dispensing justice mistakes can and do happen. Between 1976 and 2003, 112 death row inmates in the United States were released after the unearthing of new evidence led to the overturning of their convictions.

Civilisation has moved far beyond the time of Hammurabi when "an eye for an eye" was the basis of all laws. The death penalty creates a senseless and vicious cycle of violence. I firmly believe that we are in no position to take away that which God has bequeathed upon each of us.

Fortunately, Malaysians can rely on several voices of sanity in this debate. Organisations such as the Bar Council and Madpet (Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture) have consistently called for an end to capital punishment.

Indeed, the global trend is for countries to drop the death penalty from the repertoire of punishments. The latest country to do so was the Philippines which repealed capital punishment last month. To date 125 countries have so far abolished the death penalty. Malaysia is among a shrinking group of 71 countries that continue to cling on to an unmerciful and irreversible punishment.

It is high time we let compassion guide us on this issue.

The writer notes with sadness that from 1970 to the present, 359 people have been condemned to death by Malaysian courts while 159 are still on death row. Send comments to feedback@

Updated: 10:33AM Fri, 14 Jul 2006

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