Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Statement by Purna Sen,
Director, Asia-Pacific Programme, Amnesty International

The death penalty is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. It violates the right to life. It is irrevocable. It can be and has been inflicted on the innocent. To move towards a world where human rights are protected and respected those counties that still execute must abolish this penalty. A world where human rights are real is a world without executions. What will be Asia’s part in this journey? What will be said of South Korea?

We meet today on the occasion of the World Day Against the Death Penalty, the fourth of its kind, called by the World Coalition against the Death Penalty. This grouping of lawyers, NGOs including Amnesty International, trade unions, local governments from across the world, is an important umbrella for work to abolish the death penalty. Last year saw 263 actions all over the world on 10 October. This year we bring an added dimension to the power of this global call with a focus on Asia and the Pacific, through the launch of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN). This network brings together voices of those fighting for human rights and against the death penalty across various countries in this region.

Trend towards abolition
In April 2006 Amnesty International estimated that 20000 people were on death row throughout the world. They wait to be killed by their own governments. Despite the shocking figures, the trend towards abolition is clear: the number of countries carrying out executions halved in the last 20 years and has dropped for the fourth consecutive year.

Progress towards global abolition has been dramatic. In 1977, just 16 countries had abolished capital punishment for all crimes. Today the figure stands at 88:
• 88 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes;
• 11 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes;
• 30 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice: they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for at least the previous 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions,
This is a total of 129 countries which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

In Asia this trend towards abolition has not been as strong or clear as in the rest of the world. In fact, it could be said that Asia has bucked this trend

The region contains countries with high rates of executions and rare prospects of abolition. Several Asian countries, including Japan, China, Singapore and Indonesia, appear to be staunch supporters of capital punishment. In 2005, China was one of four countries in which 94 per cent of all known executions took place (the others were Iran, Saudi Arabia and the USA) and has the dubious ‘honour’ of being the country with the highest number of executions in the world. In China a person can be sentenced and executed for as many as 68 crimes, including non-violent crimes such as tax fraud, embezzlement and drug offences.

After fifteen months with no executions, Indonesia reaffirmed its preference for executions, with the killing of three men in September 2006. India has announced an October execution date after two years of no state killings (the date has since been postponed). Singapore continues to execute, despite high levels of concern and appeals for clemency from across the world; the state has killed 420 people since 1991. Hanging, shooting, lethal injection and stoning are methods used in Asia to carry out the death penalty.

It is in this context that today we are launching ADPAN – a network of local, Asian voices against the death penalty working together towards a region without state executions. The Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) brings together 21 members from twelve countries and will campaign against the injustice inherent in the administration of the death penalty in Asia and the Pacific. Today’s launch is marked by a range of activities across the region. These include
 A public outreach action to raise awareness of the death penalty in various countries
 The launch of a national coalition against the death penalty in Indonesia, that will be marked by a candlelight vigil
 A pubic education activity day in Hong Kong
 A demonstration outside Bankwang prison in Thailand, at which messages from prisoners on death row will be shared
 Website blogs against the death penalty in Malaysia and Australia
 As part of ADPAN, Amnesty International will launch a website today where ADPAN members talk about the death penalty in their countries and where other regional information is available
 In the light of the President’s stated goal of ‘zero executions’ Amnesty International has also written to the Taiwanese government, on the occasion of their national day and the world day against the death penalty, to urge abolition.

Asia is indeed a diverse region but moves against the death penalty are increasingly united, as ADPAN demonstrates. We also note, with great pleasure, the recent abolition of the death penalty in the Philippines and congratulate the government for taking this step. Such leadership in the region is very welcome and increases the number of abolitionist countries, to include Nepal, Bhutan, Samoa, Australia and New Zealand, Cambodia, Micronesia, Solomon Islands, Timor-L’este. The work to win abolition in more Asian and Pacific countries will continue and will learn from the examples set by those countries that have lead the way.

Secrecy and doubt surround the death penalty in Asia. Many governments, like China, refuse to publish full official statistics on executions while Viet Nam has even classified statistics and reporting on the death penalty as a 'state secret'. Statistics on executions and prisoners on death row are very hard to elicit from the Indian government. If the claim that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime surely governments would be making them public: how often they execute and for what crimes. The absence of transparency, however, suggests shame; secrecy indicates that the state has something to hide and robs the people of the chance to see what their governments are doing and to hold them to account.

Crime and the death penalty
The death penalty is not the unique or powerful deterrent against crime it is often claimed to be. Instead of relying on the illusion of control given by the death penalty, governments must focus on developing effective measures against crime.

Studies have consistently failed to find convincing evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than other punishments. Reviewing the evidence on the relation between changes in the use of the death penalty and homicide rates, a study conducted for the United Nations in 1988 and updated in 2002 concluded that fears of sudden increases in crime rates as a consequence of abolition are not supported by statistics.

Crime figures from abolitionist countries fail to show that abolition has harmful effects. In Canada, for example, the homicide rate per 100,000 population fell from a peak of 3.09 in 1975, the year before the abolition of the death penalty for murder, to 2.41 in 1980, and since then it has declined further. In 2003, 27 years after abolition, the homicide rate was 1.73 per 100,000 population, 44 per cent lower than in 1975 and the lowest rate in three decades.

It is not the death penalty that inhibits crime but the knowledge that an effective and prompt criminal justice system will investigate and prosecute crime. This is what states must deliver as an effective element of crime reduction strategies; a reliance on the death penalty is not a substitute.

Use of the death penalty today is a failure of justice and a dangerous conclusion to trial processes that are deeply flawed. The death penalty is an irreversible act – a cruel and inhuman punishment indeed. But where the criminal justice process that preceeds state execution is itself flawed the penalty becomes even more indefensible. Allegations of torture and reliance on confessions make convictions questionable and have featured in death penalty cases in Asian countries. The alleged murder victims in cases where the accused have been executed have even re-emerged, sometimes after the execution of the so-called murderer.

South Korea
ADPAN held its inaugural meeting July 2006 and decided that an appropriate launch would be in South Korea, where the potential for an impressive step lies in the hands of the present government. By launching in Seoul, ADPAN draws attention today to the Special Bill to abolish the death penalty, introduced in 2004 and still awaiting its review by the Legal and Judiciary Committee of the National Assembly. South Korea has strengthened its human rights work in the Ministry of Justice, has introduced the language of human rights into public discussion and most likely will provide the next Secretary-General of the United Nations. The eyes of the world are upon this country: will South Korea now deliver on the promises it has made to human rights by showing leadership on that most basic right – the right to life – by abolition of the death penalty? Or will it remain among those countries whose names are shamefully associated with the unjust and outdated practice of the death penalty?

Since the mass state execution of 23 people in December 1997, South Korea has not carried out further executions; 64 people remain on death row. The 15th and 16th National Assemblies considered Special Bills to abolish the death penalty but parliamentary time for debate lapsed before discussion had progressed. The National Assembly again showed in 2005 the strength in this country of the pro-abolition voice. ADPAN calls upon the government, upon the National Assembly, to demonstrate a leadership role in Asia by ending the death penalty not only in practice but in law. Courageous steps have been already been taken; this opportunity cannot be wasted. South Korea must show itself to be a nation progressing towards the full protection of human rights by legal abolition of the death penalty.

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