Courts will have option of life imprisonment instead of mandatory death sentence, says Ramkarpal

PETALING JAYA: The government has decided that the courts will now have an option to impose life imprisonment when dealing with cases that now have only the mandatory death penalty, says Ramkarpal Singh.

The Deputy Law Minister further stated that for six other mandatory death penalty offences that do not involve causing death of another, the death penalty will be abolished altogether.

Natural life imprisonment, however, will also be abolished and replaced with life imprisonment of between 30 and 40 years.

(Natural life imprisonment is when the convicted is sentenced to be imprisoned until his or her natural death.)

The minister said that the first reading of the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Bill 2023 and Review of Death Penalty and Life Imprisonment (Temporary Jurisdiction of Federal Court) Bill 2023 will be done on Monday (March 27).

Should it be passed, the alternative penalty will have retrospective effect and affect 476 death sentence prisoners who have not yet completed the appeal process, whether at the Court of Appeal or Federal Court.

"There are 11 offences which prescribe the mandatory death penalty. For those cases, the death penalty will still remain.

"For these 11 offences, the court has the option of imposing the death penalty or maintaining it if it has been imposed. For these offences, there will be the option of imprisonment sentences.

"For offences which did not cause death, where we are doing away with the death penalty completely - except for three offences - Section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act 39B and two other offences (Section 121 and 121A under the Penal Code) against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.

"The death penalty for six offences are to be abolished but for the said three exceptions, the death penalty remains,” said Ramkarpal.

The six offences in which the death penalty will be abolished completely are Section 3, 3A and Section 7 of the Firearms (Increased Penalties) Act 1971, Section 14 of Arms Act 1960, Section 3 of Kidnapping Act 1961 and Section 364 of Penal Code.

Ramkarpal said this to The Star after a briefing with media editors, as part of the engagement process with all stakeholders before the Bill is tabled.

"The government has made a policy decision to do away with the mandatory part of the death penalty.

"Evidence has suggested that it is not an effective deterrent (to crime). It has not achieved the purpose we wanted to achieve in the long term.

"For example when we talk about drug trafficking.

"In most cases, statistics will show that these involve drug mules. It is widely accepted that by eliminating drug mules - those who are committing crimes out of desperation - we are not really really eradicating the problem,” said Ramkarpal.

He opined that the problem of drug trafficking needs to be nipped in the bud - from the very process of drug production - and looked at in a holistic manner to solve the problem.

"Specifically when we talk about drug trafficking, we would like to take a more holistic view as to how to overcome the problem of drug trafficking. Do not get me wrong - it is a very serious problem,” said Ramkarpal.

He also pointed out that with the local laws themselves imposing mandatory death penalty when drug mules are arrested here, the Malaysian government’s intervention for Malaysian citizens who are arrested as drug mules and sentenced to hang in foreign countries does not carry much weight.

"If we want to criticise countries which want to hang our citizens, we do not have the moral high ground as we ourselves are imposing the death penalty.

"But now, with this latest development, we will be in a better position to negotiate a more lenient sentence for our citizens abroad who were unfortunately caught overseas and face this predicament,” said Ramkarpal.

In recent times, the Malaysian government has appealed to intervene when Malaysian drug mules are arrested in other countries and sentenced to hang, albeit unsuccessfully.

Ramkarpal also stated that in doing away with the mandatory penalty, he expects backlash from families of victims of murder cases, but understands their plight.

Families of murdered victims have been the main opposition in the call for abolishing the death penalty.

"We sympathise with the plight of victims (of murder cases). We are not in any way implying that the crimes committed were any less serious.

"What we hope to impress on them - try to make them understand that in the long term is that the death penalty is not serving any purpose.

"We have met them in the past but we hope to have another session with them before the Bill is passed. I hope to explain to them why we are taking this step,” said Ramkarpal.

He pointed out that the decision to do away with the mandatory death penalty was not new.

"This was something initiated by the Pakatan Harapan administration back in 2018.

"The late Datuk VK Liew, who was then the law minister under Pakatan, had initiated the process and since then, there has been quite a lot of fine-tuning in between.

"There has been a lot of work done - a task force called the Special Committee for the Study of Alternative Punishment to the Mandatory Death Penalty headed by former chief justice Tan Sri Richard Malanjum - was also formed and the various eminent members of that task force had conducted a lot of work on the topic.

"The result we have today is based on much comprehensive research in the area,” said Ramkarpal.

Since 2018, the government has placed a moratorium on execution of prisoners sentenced to death.

There are currently 1,320 prisoners in prison pending execution.

Despite the moratorium, legislation carrying the death penalty remains on the books and courts have continued to sentence defendants to death.

The abolishment of the mandatory death penalty was thrust into the limelight after public outcry over cases of Malaysian youths who were drug mules and sentenced to death or executed in Singapore.

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