An Inconvenient Moral Argument: Are You For Or Against The Death Penalty?
- Published on Monday, 25 May 2015 07:28
- Written by Teh Wei Soon
MAHATMA Gandhi once said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”, but could the same be said about the death penalty or capital punishment?
The sentence that someone be punished in this manner of death is usually reserved for murders, espionage, treason, sexual offenses, religious crimes (in Islamic countries) and drug trafficking. However, executions are often pondered upon and debated over its ethics and legality.
Just like how many were dismayed by the recent Indonesian executions of eight drug convicts for their roles in a 2005 heroin smuggling ring. After their appeal was dismissed by the Indonesian Supreme Court, and their plea, rejected by the President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo, despite fierce international lobbying and widespread condemnation, the convicted were put to death by a firing squad.
More recently, an Egyptian court sentenced the embattled ex-president Mohamed Morsi to death for his part in a mass jailbreak in 2011. Also, the 21-year-old Boston bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev faced the same fate as he was sentenced to death by lethal injection for the 2013 attack that killed three people and wounded 264 others.
While in Malaysia, just last two weeks, a Nigerian female student was sentenced to death by the Malaysian High Court in which she was found guilty of trafficking 765.9 g of methamphetamine at the KL International Airport (KLIA) four years ago. Judge Datuk Ghazali Cha, passed a death sentence on 30-year-old, Mary George Unazi, after finding that the prosecution had managed to prove the defendant guilty.
Over the past years, civil rights unions have campaigned against the death penalty. According to Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM), the abolition of the death penalty worldwide has increased these last ten years -- Asia in particular. Despite this commendable progress, there are still numerous challenges faced to halt the use of the death penalty in the region, given the fact that some countries have resumed executions.
Globally, the existence of the death penalty oftentimes have raised one underlying question: have we established our judicial systems out of a desire for rehabilitation, or out of a desire for retribution?
A Quick Glimpse Of The Death Penalty In Malaysia And Worldwide
In Malaysia, the death penalty is a legal form of punishment -- in which it is a mandatory punishment for murder, drug trafficking, treason, and waging war against Yang di-Pertuan Agong (the King), and the law has been extended to include acts of terrorism recently.
The idea behind the death penalty in the country arose from a mix between the common law system that Malaysia inherited during its colonisation period from the British and the authorisation of certain punishments in Islam.
Currently, death penalties are carried out through hanging, and the penalty is used for a variety of offenses. It has also been a mandatory punishment for rapists that cause death, also for child rapists. However, in Malaysia, only High Courts have the jurisdiction to sentence someone to death.
According to sources, Malaysia has executed 359 people between 1970 and 2001, whilst 159 people remain on death row as of 2006. There have been at least 2 executions carried out in 2013 as reported by Amnesty International last year. Nevertheless, Amnesty noted that it was not able to gain the official figures, as there is a lack of information provided by the government on the matter. Meanwhile, based on reports, there is an estimate of 76 executions, and an estimate of 992 people on death row in Malaysia by the end of 2013.
A closer look at the global distribution on the death penalty shows that in the past few years, many countries have abolished this capital punishment -- either in law or in practise. Reports show that 36 countries have retained the death penalty in active use, whereas 103 countries had abolished capital punishment altogether, 6 had done so for all offenses except under special circumstances, and 50 have abolished it in practise because they had not used it for at least 10 years or were under a moratorium.
22 countries were known to have had executions carried out in 2013, as reported by Amnesty International.
There are countries which do not publish information on the use of capital punishment, most significantly China and North Korea. At least 23,392 people worldwide were under sentence of death at the end of 2013.
Surprisingly, or not, Japan and the United States (US) are the only developed countries to have carried out executions. The US is the only Western country in the Americas to have carried out executions, with 32 states currently carrying out capital punishments. In 2012, 43 executions in the US took place in nine states: Arizona (6), Delaware (1), Florida (3), Idaho (1), Mississippi (6), Ohio (3), Oklahoma (6), South Dakota (2), Texas (15).
The most recent statistics by Amnesty International and Death Penalty Worldwide also revealed that China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the US are the top 5 countries in the world recorded to have the highest number of reported executions by death penalty last year. Meanwhile, the most recent country to abolish the death penalty is Suriname in March 2015.
Does Practising The Death Penalty Deter Crime?
Of late, anti-death penalty forces have gained momentum along with many human rights advocates and organisations, to strongly renounce the use of capital punishment in all circumstances. These parties have also called for the abolition of death penalties globally, and this includes in Malaysia.
Amnesty International (AI) Malaysia is among the human rights organisations here which have been lobbying the abolition of the death penalty for years, and has played a key role in succeeding to do so in many countries. Its efforts resulted in a record number of 117 United Nations (UN) member states adopting a resolution to impose a moratorium on the use of the death penalty with a view of complete abolition.
In an interview with Malaysian Digest, Executive Director of Amnesty International Malaysia, Shamini Darshni (pic) said, Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all situations, saying it is the ultimate cruel and heartless punishment which is akin to cold-blooded murder.
“Crime has existed for lifetimes, and so has the death penalty. Yet, there is still crime and there is still state-sanctioned killing. One does not solve the other.
“States that impose the death penalty are not able to claim that the death penalty has reduced crime. It is clear that the death penalty does nothing to reduce crime statistics in our society. Therefore, it [death penalty] has and will remain a core focus of Amnesty International’s work globally,” said Shamini.
She shared that Amnesty International produces the Death Sentences and Executions Report every year to chart trends on the use of the death penalty globally, detailing that in the Amnesty International’s 2014 report, it is found that an alarming number of the 22 countries which performed executions used the death penalty to respond to real or perceived threats to state security and public safety posed by terrorism, crime or internal instability.
“Even though the death penalty does not have a particular deterrent effect on crime compared to other forms of punishment, we still consider that the trend towards global abolition is progressing in which the number of executions recorded by Amnesty International dropped from at least 778 in 2013 to at least 607 in 2014, a drop of almost 22%.
“The long-term trend of the world moving away from the death penalty is still clear. In 2014, 22 countries executed the death penalty, while two decades ago, in 1995, that number stood at 41. At the same time, we also saw a troubling increase in the number of death sentences, which rose from at least 1,925 in 2013 to at least 2,466 in 2014, a jump of a staggering 28%,” she pointed out.
“We have discovered many glaring things about countries that impose the death penalty after years of research in this area. These include how the death penalty is used as a populist tool to win elections when crime rates are high, and how it has been abused by biased criminal justice systems which have sentenced people to death en bloc for political reasons,” she said.
On whether the use of the death penalty should be objectively pursued and used only in certain crimes, she said: “It is true that international law limits the use of the death penalty to the ‘most serious offenses’ which translates to meaning ‘intentional killing’, but it has to be noted that the death penalty violates the right to life, and life, whomever it belongs to, is sacred.”
“There is no proof that the death penalty stops drugs from hitting the streets, but there are many years of research which prove that it does not reduce or eliminate it. If the death penalty does deter would-be criminals, would we not be a crime-free society?” she questioned.
“Therefore, we oppose the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime, guilt or other characteristics of the individual, or the method used by the state to carry out the execution,” she remarked.
In 2012, the government announced its plans to review the country’s mandatory death penalty laws, which do not allow judges to consider mitigating circumstances in death penalty murder cases. This clearly shows the government's adamant stance on the use of death penalty in the country.
Commenting further on the matter, Shamini said: “We understand that the Attorney-General’s Chambers is currently studying the use of the mandatory death penalty, as it reported during its Universal Periodic Review to the UN Human Rights Council earlier this year.
“However, we remain positive that the government is open towards abolishing the death penalty. Still, this cannot come soon enough, and we urge the Malaysian government to immediately impose a temporary halt on using the death penalty with a view of total abolition,” she added.
Movements Toward The Abolition Of Death Penalty
In view that every individual has the right to live regardless their committed crimes, human rights activists and abolitionists have strongly renounced the death penalty, believing it to be cruel and inhumane. Those in particular that sternly echo such are the European Union (EU), Amnesty International, Together Against the Death Penalty (ECPM) and Human Rights Watch.
Over the years, the European Union has been working towards universal abolition of the death penalty as a strongly held policy agreed by all EU Member States in which EU will advocate the immediate establishment of a moratorium on the use of death penalty with a view to abolition.
In a recent interview with Malaysian Digest, Ambassador and Head of Delegation of the European Union to Malaysia, Luc Vandebon (pic) shared his insights with us on the practise of the death penalty.
“The death penalty is cruel, unnecessary and inhumane. While the European Union understands that no legal system is flawless, we are deeply concerned that any miscarriage of justice could lead to the loss of an innocent life. It is therefore that the EU has a strong and unequivocal opposition to the death penalty in all times and in all circumstances, and we will continue our long-standing campaign against the death penalty alongside with the growing momentum towards its abolition worldwide.
“We consider the death penalty as an unlawful 'premeditated' killing of one human being by another as it constitutes serious violation of human rights and human dignity. Besides, there is no compelling evidence that exists to show that death penalty serves as a deterrent to crime,” he said.
Asked what the EU can do to positively contribute to the death penalty debate in Malaysia, he explained that the EU have an active policy of dialogue, campaign and cooperation with the Malaysian government.
"This is done through exchanges between judicial authorities and dialogues on the different matters linked to the death penalty, and through cooperation with Malaysia's civil society. We will continue to intensify our initiatives, including declarations on the death penalty in international fora and towards other countries," he said.
He further remarked: "The EU will raise the issue of the death penalty in its dialogue and consultations with third countries in which the elements in these contacts include the EU's call for universal abolition of the death penalty and where its use is maintained, the EU will emphasise that states should only use the death penalty in line with the minimum standards."
Commenting on the recent executions of ‘Bali Nine’ drug convicts, he said: "The EU is dismayed at the latest series of executions in Indonesia. As friend of Indonesia, we urge the government to take heed of the views expressed by many in the international community in recent years and declare an immediate moratorium on the use of death penalty.
“We stand ready to offer political support and practical assistance in combating the trade in narcotics and other criminal activities which pose challenges to the Indonesian society and beyond,” he stressed further.
Malaysians Speak Up About The Death Penalty
Undoubtedly, the death penalty is a matter of active controversy in various countries, including Malaysia. While some regard it as cold-blooded and criticise it for its irreversibility and lack of a deterrent effect, advocates on the other hand, argue that it could deter crime, as it serves its purpose for granting justice, and provides closure for the surviving victims and their families.
In order to understand the perceptions of Malaysians toward the death penalty, Malaysian Digest reached out to the general public who gave their take on the subject.
"I strongly oppose the use of the death penalty. There is no justice in killing in the name of justice. By executing the condemned offenders, it goes to show that killing is acceptable even as a lawful punishment. If killing was wrong, executions would not exist. You cannot kill a human being to show them that killing is wrong, that is an out-and-out hypocrisy. Those who are sentenced to death should instead be made to stay alive and be justly punished for their wrongdoings. Life in prison is already a sufficient punishment. Death penalty, for me, is plain excessive because it is an easy way out.” – Anthony Quah, 39, criminal defense lawyer
“For me, the death penalty is a lawful and proportional punishment, therefore it should be strictly imposed to deter crime in our society. It is something like a spiritual medicine in the sense that it saves a man's soul as it can foster repentance and I believe it serves a great purpose to prevent an individual from committing heinous crimes, it saves them from further damnation. Therefore, I support the use of the death penalty because it certainly has a deterrent effect on criminal activities besides serving as a just means of protecting the society as a whole.” – Kamini d/o Verrappan, 43, accounting lecturer
“At the risk of sounding too harsh, I must say the only way to sufficiently express our disgust at atrocious crime offenders like murderers and terrorists is by executing them. Nothing else suffices. In saying which, one must note that the death penalty has been exercised since ancient times. Therefore, whatever the arguments may be against the death penalty, it cannot be said to violate the right to life because law is always law. One should be individually responsible for crimes he or she has committed. I am in favour of the death penalty, however, at the same time, it should be fairly applied.” – Mohammad Sukhri Ramli, 21, university student
“My opposition to the death penalty is an absolute, as there are no circumstances where I consider the government should have the ultimate sanction against the individual. For me, it [death penalty] does not serve any social purpose nor does it prevent criminal activities. Although I agree that serious crime offenders should be justly punished, but not to the extent of killing them. For me, an important message that needs to be conveyed to our society is that the death penalty is not about what the convicts deserve, but instead it is about how we, as the general public, should defend our own fundamental values and say no to the death penalty. I stand for mercy! – Jonathan Chen Zhi En, 32, investment bank officer
Quoting Shamini, who said: “In a study conducted by the Death Penalty Project (an organisation based in the UK) 1,500 Malaysians were asked about their thoughts on the mandatory death penalty. The study showed that support for the mandatory death penalty declined dramatically when mitigating factors were introduced in a case. This speaks volumes about the need for judicial discretion, and most importantly, when lives are at stake.”
In 2012, the Law Minister held that the government may replace the death sentence with an imprisonment term instead in recognition that such a sentence only punishes the drug mules and not those higher up in the chain. This was also in addition to the fact that the death penalty did not seem to have any deterring effect, thus questioning the need for such punishments to be meted out.
Who knows what the Malaysian government’s stance may be about the death penalty in the future – and whether or not we may head to its abolition. But in the meantime, the goal of any punishment, and the decision in the judicial system should be taken into consideration more adequately, because in the end, death is always painful.
And if we ought to force it on anyone for any reason that doesn’t permit nature to take its own course, we too would be guilty of equal cruelty towards criminals who are convicted to the death sentence.- mD