Thursday, April 17, 2008

DEATH PENALTY: Beijing Sentence Shakes Malaysia's Own Policy

DEATH PENALTY: Beijing Sentence Shakes Malaysia's Own Policy
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 23 (IPS) - Malaysia's unshakable stand on the death penalty appears to be wavering as a country unites in sympathy and outrage over the plight of a young Malay woman sentenced to death in China for allegedly acting as a drug courier.

Umi Azlim Mohamad Lazim, 24, a university science graduate from a poor Malay family of rice farmers, admitted to having 2.9 kilograms in her luggage when she was arrested at Shantou airport last January.

She told a court in southeast China during her trial in May 2007, that she was travelling for a highly-paid job she secured over the internet. But she was unaware what was in the bag she was carrying for a Nigerian friend. The judge rejected her explanation and sentenced her to death, the usual sentence for such an offence.

"She thought she was carrying important corporate documents," her mother, Umi Ibrahim, told IPS. "We cry everyday ... what can we do? We want her to live not die."

Most Malaysians appear to share the mother's anguish.

The case is fast-developing into an emotive national issue. Politicians have set aside their differences to halt Lazim's execution. The ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and its rival the Islamic fundamentalist Pan Malaysian Islamic Party are even vying in their efforts.

Both are collecting money for the family, working to arrange family visits and promising they will save Lazim from execution.

The government is at a distinct disadvantage in the race to save Lazim. Malaysia's punishment for drug-related crimes is as harsh, if not harsher, than most other countries. The government supports the death penalty.

"Malaysia has suddenly woken up to the fact that ordinary Malaysians are now caught in the same death-penalty trap that we put others in," Nagarajan Surendran, a human rights lawyer and executive co-director of Malaysians Against the Death Penalty, a NGO campaigning against capital punishment, told IPS. Trafficking in more than 200 grams of dangerous drugs carries a death sentence.

"Today there are about 300 people on death row here, mostly for drug offences," Surendran said. Many of the 359 people executed from 1980 to 2001 had been sentenced for drug offences.

Much national outrage is today focused on how the Chinese might eventually end Lazim's life, although her sentence has been suspended for two years on humanitarian grounds. "People are shot in their heads with rifles. It is a horrific way for a young girl to die," said Surendran, expressing a widely-expressed view.

The case has also suddenly brought to public attention a number of others. There are some 30 young Malaysian women either sentenced or awaiting trial for drug-related offences in more than a dozen countries besides China, including Japan, Brazil and Peru. Several could be sentenced to death.

Many are university graduates lured by offers of high salaries and opportunities to travel. Behind the tempting offers are shady front companies run by international drug cartels.

"The syndicates are willing to throw money at the unsuspecting girls before they make their moves," federal narcotics department director Bakri Zinin told local newspapers in November.

The problem of young Malaysians caught ferrying drugs is already posing a major problem for the foreign ministry. Diplomats are kept busy finding defence lawyers, monitoring trails and making regular health and welfare checks on the young women.

"Their fate is a major embarrassment to the government," said Ramu Annamalai Kandasamy, a human rights lawyer representing many such clients and death-row inmates, told IPS. "The government has to come up with a firm policy on how to help the victims on death-row in far off countries."

Surendran's proposal is for Malaysia to introduce an immediate moratorium on executions. This would lift the threat of execution of foreigners on Malaysian soil. Other countries would be likely to respond in kind.

"Malaysia would get a more sympathetic hearing if it imposed a moratorium. One good turn deserves another," he argues.

"People would understand," he adds, suggesting that the public would agree that a change in policy over the death penalty was the most diplomatically effective way of saving the lives of condemned Malaysians on foreign death-rows.

A moratorium could also help secure the reduction in other harsh sentences imposed on Malaysians by foreign courts, diplomatic sources say. Peru was ready to reduce sentences of up to 20 years imposed on Malaysians in return for the sparing five of its nationals on death-row in Malaysia, they add.

Many opposition politicians would support a moratorium, or even total abolition, if it could save the lives of Malaysians like Lazim.

"These girls made a mistake in their youth. They deserve to live, not to be killed so cruelly. Imagine the pain their loved ones are going through," said opposition lawmaker Teresa Kok.

"If Malaysia abolishes the death sentence it can stand on a higher moral ground and ask foreign countries to spare the hangman's noose.

"It is time Malaysia complied with international standards," she added, citing the U.N. General Assembly resolution last December calling for a moratorium on executions. The resolution urged all states that still maintain the death penalty "to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty".


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