Questioning the death penalty

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 19 Jun 2016

Most of what the punishment does is show that the government is tough. But it doesn

Amnesty International secretary-general Salil Shetty feels it’s time for Malaysia to join the abolitionists, saying there is no evidence the death penalty is an effective deterrent.

RIGHT now, more than 1,000 prisoners in Malaysia are waiting to know if they will be executed for their crimes or have their lives spared. 

These death row inmates, according to the Prisons Department, are yet to be sent to the gallows as their cases are pending appeals, with the court or state pardon boards. 

But as their fate continues to hang in the balance, Amnesty International (AI) is urging Malaysia to join the ranks of the growing number of countries that have put an end to the death penalty. 

Its secretary-general Salil Shetty is also calling on the Malaysian Government to impose a moratorium on all death row cases while it is deliberating whether to do away with the penalty for good. 

In fact, he even goes on to say that it is “fictional” that capital punishments can deter crimes, including terrorism. “There is no evidence in the world to show that the death penalty is a deterrent. 

Almost every study we have seen questions that. “Most of what the punishment does is show that the government is tough. But it doesn’t make a difference,” says the human rights activist. 

The 55-year-old adds that Canada’s crime rate had even dipped after it abolished the death sentence. Salil says the reason why AI is against the death penalty is because it is fundamentally against the right to life. “This is especially if a country’s criminal justice system is not up to mark and skewed against poorer people who cannot afford lawyers,” he says. 

The long-term activist on poverty and justice was in Malaysia as one of the co-chairpersons for the World Economic Forum for Asean in Kuala Lumpur recently.

In his frank and no-holds-barred manner, Salil says there is a need for more transparency on the number of executions in Malaysia. “We only get statistics when a question is asked in Parliament. 

According to the Government, there have been 33 prisoners executed between 1998 and 2015,” he says. 

Salil adds that the death penalty is not justified even if used to stem the growing threat of the Islamic State terrorist group. “I just came back from Iraq, which is one of the prolific users of the death penalty. 

Has it reduced terrorism there?” he questions. On whether life imprisonment is a more viable option, Salil says AI does not recommend punishments in the generic sense. “Punishments have to be proportional with the crime, and must be in line with international standards,” he says. 

Under Malaysian law, several crimes carry the death sentence including murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping or abducting to murder, abetting mutiny, waging war against the King, gang robbery with murder, among others. 

In 2003, amendments were made to the Penal Code, adding terrorism-related offences to the list of crimes punishable by death. With the amendments, anyone who commits a terrorist act that results in death, or aids terrorists can be sentenced to death, among others. 

According to AI’s Death Sentences and Executions 2015 report, a total of 1,634 people were put to death in 25 countries. 

As of Dec 31 last year, 102 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Malaysia is among 58 countries that retain the penalty for ordinary crimes. 

The remaining nations only execute prisoners for exceptional crimes or have not executed anyone in 10 years despite having provisions in place. 

Other retentionist countries include Japan, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Taiwan, Thailand and the United States. Last month, another retentionist country, Singapore executed Malaysian murder convict Kho Jabing for killing a construction worker in 2008. 

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri recently said a total of 1,041 inmates are on death row in Malaysian prisons as of May 16. However, a decision has yet to be made on the Government’s policy on the death sentence as an in-depth study is still being carried out. 

The results of the study would be announced once it is completed. Until then, Salil says there are other matters to be addressed when it comes to upholding human rights here. 

For Malaysia, he singles out the limitations on freedom of expression as Malaysia’s immediate human rights concern. 

Noting that there have been 91 cases of usage of the Sedition Act last year, Salil adds that other laws including the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 have also been used to silence criticisms against the Government. “Freedom of expression is number one. 

If you crush a person’s ability to speak up, injustice cannot be heard. “So it is a cross-cutting problem,” he says, calling on the Government to choose the inclusive route by engaging the people in more national dialogues. 

Quipping that Malaysians are “smart, articulate” people, Salil says Malaysia is also doing well economically, and is abiding by more international norms and standards when it comes to business. “But the same is not true on the human rights platform,” he says, adding that both matters are closely linked. 

Salil says without a strong foundation of human rights, a country becomes unstable and investors will turn away because they would favour more peaceful and harmonious nations. 

“There is this disjuncture between Malaysia’s development and its human rights reality now. It doesn’t quite add up,” he says. 

Salil, born in Bengaluru, India, says he remembers Malaysia to be a country that respects diversity and embraces pluralism in its multi- ethnic society. And this strength that should be leveraged upon to propel Malaysia to achieve an exemplary standard of human rights. 

He points out that Malaysia has yet to ratify major conventions including the United Nations Convention against Torture that aims to prevent inhumane treatment and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect the political rights of individuals. 

Personally, for Salil, his work into human rights was spurred on by the influence of his parents – he is the only child of his journalist father and activist mother. 

A traumatic experience of watching his father being handcuffed and arrested over an article he wrote partly inspired Salil to champion human rights and he has not slowed down. “Across the world, AI sees a general regression of human rights. Our immediate concern now is the Middle East. 

So our plans for the future involves going back to basics – protecting human rights and growing the movement in Asia and Africa where violations are great,” he says. 

Salil also notes that there are also “new frontiers” where the human rights battle is fought, namely online. “Technology and social media are used to help people organise rallies and give them a voice on Facebook and Twitter. 

But now, it is also being monitored and tracked by governments. “The fight is online as much as it is offline,” he says. 

Salil says the first step ordinary people can do to improve the state of human rights is to understand issues and be informed. “You can’t be passive. Governments may come and go but the people remain,” he says.

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