Monday, 27 February 2006

South Korea – former president calls for abolition

South Korea's former president Kim Dae-jung – himself a former death row inmate – has called for an end to the death penalty, adding to a growing campaign for abolition in the country.

The appeal, distributed by Amnesty International on 20 February, was reported by Taiwan's China Post newspaper.

"Capital punishment goes against the foundation of democracy," Kim said. "To end a person's life even in the name of law clearly runs counter to the basic principle of human rights."

According to The China Post, Kim's appeal cited concerns about the possibility of judicial error or dictators misusing the punishment against political dissidents.

"This was what happened ... when I was on the verge of being executed," he said.

South Korea has not carried out executions since Kim Dae-jung took office in February 1998, although it has continued to sentence people to death.

Kim was sentenced to death on sedition charges in 1980 by South Korea's ruling military government. His death sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment and he was allowed to leave the country.

The South Korea Justice Ministry announced last week that it was reviewing the death penalty and considering replacing executions with life imprisonment. The announcement represented a significant shift from the ministry's previous active opposition to any move to abolish the death penalty.

The last executions in South Korea were on 30 December 1997, when 18 men and 5 women were executed in prisons across the country. They had no advance notice of their imminent executions. The mass hangings were the first executions in the country for two years.

Open courts to hear China’s death row appeals

China's chief justice Xiao Yang has confirmed that all appeals against death sentences must be heard in an open court from the second half of 2006.

On 25 February, the China Daily reported comments by the head of the Supreme People's Court (SPC) at a seminar in Zhengzhou in Central China's Henan Province.

Xiao Yang was quoted as saying: "The move will ensure justice and caution in death penalty rulings."

The moves are part of a series of reforms aimed at restoring confidence in China's justice system. Under a policy the media have termed 'kill fewer, kill carefully', the Supreme People's Court will also be reasserting its power to hear all appeals in death penalty cases.

On Monday, legal scholar Liu Renwen, from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told reporters that some local governments were resisting moves by the Supreme Court to take from provincial high courts the power to hear appeals.

During 2005 there was an unprecedented level of discussion in China – and expression of public anger – about a number of high-profile miscarriages of justice involving police torture, wrongful convictions and ultimately the execution of innocent people. Official media and websites permitted very rare public criticism of these failures in the justice system.

Capital cases are usually heard by intermediate courts, which have been criticised by human rights organisations for political interference, corruption and poor judicial standards.

Appeals are currently heard by provincial-level High People’s Courts, often on the basis of a closed-door judicial review of the case.

Sunday, 26 February 2006

Viet Nam easing the executioner's burden

In the last two years, the Vietnamese government has considered changing the method of execution from the current firing squad to either lethal injection or an automatic firing machine (aimed at the prisoner and then fired with the press of a button).

Recent reports in official state media quoted a Police Ministry study favouring a move to lethal injection.

According to a Reuters story in early February, state media quoted the study’s findings on lethal injection: "The method's advantage is to cause less pain to the death-row inmate, the execution time is short, some parts can be automated so it will minimise the psychological difficulties for executioners."

So, humane all round then.

Friday, 24 February 2006

Malaysia PM defends death for drug offenders

Malaysia's Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi said the death penalty was "the right kind of punishment" for drug traffickers at a media conference with Australian journalists on 22 February.

Badawi, in Australia to receive an honorary doctorate from the Curtin University of Technology, was responding to a question about harsh anti-drug laws in ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries.

According to an AAP report, Abdullah said: "We are very hard, very hard on drugs ... (they are) a threat to the wellbeing of our society."

"You know the kind of suffering they (drug traffickers) have inflicted upon the people who have to take their product.

"I have seen enough suffering. I have seen enough. I have seen what happens to these people."

Malaysian newspaper The Star reports quotes Abdullah adding: "Drug addiction leads to other crimes. At the beginning, addicts may take money from their parents' wallet. This then leads to more serious crimes as drugs are not cheap.

"The only way to fight the drug scourge is take preventive and punitive measures, including imposing the death penalty on traffickers.

"We have to resort to doing things based on our own environment and the complexities that we live in."

Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Positive signs in the Philippines and South Korea

Two countries in Asia may be closer to abolishing the death penalty, following significant announcements by the President of the Philippines and a key government ministry in South Korea.

Philippines President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo has told the Foreign Correspondents Association "I am all in favor of repealing the death penalty and when it comes to the committee level [in Congress], I will certify it.” She said she wanted the death penalty abolished because of her Catholic beliefs.

In the past President Arroyo has given mixed signals on the death penalty, lifting a moratorium on the death penalty and supporting the execution of convicted kidnappers.

But last week the President ordered the commutation of 280 death sentences on humanitarian grounds. During a visit to the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) in Muntinlupa City, she ordered the Department of Justice to identify the 280 longest-serving inmates on death row. There were reportedly 1,280 men detained on death row.

Catholic Bishops, parliamentarians, legal organisations and human rights groups have made growing calls for the death penalty to be revoked.

In South Korea, the Ministry of Justice has announced that it is reviewing the death penalty and considering replacing executions with life imprisonment.

A ministry official told The Korea Times: “We will thoroughly examine the possibility of abolishing the death penalty as part of efforts to set up a human rights-oriented penal system.”

The review will look at whether the death penalty is effective in deterring crime, the situation in abolitionist countries and the possible alternative of life imprisonment without parole.

The review is an important step for a ministry with a record of opposing moves in the National Assembly to abolish the death penalty.

In June 2005, the Ministry of Justice wrote to the National Assembly opposing the abolition of the death penalty. The JoongAng Daily reported that the letter, sent to the Assembly’s Judiciary and Legislative Committee, cited public opinion in favour of the death penalty and claimed that execution was more humane than life imprisonment without parole.

In 2005, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission recommended the death penalty be abolished.

Tuesday, 21 February 2006

Taiwan working towards abolition?

The government of Taiwan is working to lower the number of executions carried out each year, according to a report in the Taipei Times.

Justice Minister Morley Shih said the Taiwanese Ministry of Justice (MOJ) has filed extraordinary appeals to the Supreme Court in an effort to delay the execution of some prisoners. Where the Supreme Court has rejected these appeals, the MOJ has also attempted to stay the executions.

According to official MOJ figures, there were 109 people on death row in Taiwan as of 17 February, with 15 awaiting execution after they were given their final sentence. The death row population in said to be growing, with fewer executions being carried out.

The government is said to be aiming at eventual abolition of the death penalty, but Justice Minister Shih said a majority of people believed it was needed as a deterrent against crime.

Newspapers have reported cases of mental illness among prisoners on death row, including the suicide of a prisoner last month who reportedly told prison staff that waiting for his execution date was too painful.

Sunday, 19 February 2006

Australian police & the firing squad

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) has been criticised for its role in the arrest of the Bali 9, providing information to the Indonesian police that led to the arrest of nine Australian citizens for drug smuggling offences.

Two have since been sentenced to death for their role in the plot.

Now the Australian government has confirmed another Australian citizen is facing execution as a result of AFP cooperation in the region.

Huu Trinh, 53, was sentenced to death in Viet Nam for trafficking about 2 kilograms of heroin. He was reportedly arrested on the Vietnam-Cambodia border.

A spokesperson for Australia’s Justice Minister Chris Ellison told The Age newspaper that Trinh's arrest "was the result of co-operation between Australian and Vietnamese authorities regarding a large drug syndicate".

Amnesty International Australia has called on the government to revise the operational guidelines to ensure Australian police will only provide information where there is a guarantee that the information will not be used to sentence people to death.

Following the death sentences handed down in Bali, Amnesty International said "the Government must review its guidelines for the AFP, to ensure it can work with police in Asia and meet Australia’s international human rights obligations".

Saturday, 18 February 2006

To begin, good news in Viet Nam

Two Australians on death row in Viet Nam have been spared the firing squad. The two death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by the Vietnamese President, Tran Duc Luong, who cited "humane tradition" and the good bilateral relationship between Australia and Viet Nam.

Mai Cong Thanh, 46, and Nguyen Van Chinh, 45, were granted clemency following lobbying by the Australian government. One is an Australian citizen and the other an Australian permanent resident.

Mai Cong Thanh was sentenced to death in June 2005 for conspiring with two other Australian nationals to traffic 1.7kgs of heroin to Australia in loudspeakers. Nguyen Van Chinh was condemned in April 2005 for trafficking 1050 grams of heroin. Both had been sentenced to death after trials lasting one day.

After China, Viet Nam has one of the highest execution rates in Asia. Amnesty International reported that at least 64 people, four of them women, were executed in Viet Nam in 2004. At least 88 were sentenced to death, about half for drug offences. Viet Nam's death penalty system is notoriously secretive, so the true figures were believed to be much higher.

Four days ago, two other Australians were sentenced to death in Indonesia for leading the so-called "Bali 9", who attempted to smuggle heroin to Australia. Andrew Chan, 22, and Myuran Sukumaran, 24 have a number of legal avenues for appeal.

About me

A few people have asked who I am, so...

I have been involved in the human rights movement for about 20 years, as a campaigner, writer and activist. I worked for Amnesty International Australia (AIA) in Brisbane and Sydney for more than 10 years, coordinating various campaigns at regional and national levels. I also spent two years as a policy researcher with Australia's Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC).

In 2000, as a volunteer activist, I established AIA's anti-death penalty network. I coordinated the network until 2006 and was the organisation's main media spokesperson until mid-2008. This included being a member of the strategy team and the media spokesperson for the organisation's campaign in late 2005 opposing the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore.

A journalist by training, I created the Asia Death Penalty blog in February 2006 to report on -- and record -- developments in the death penalty and the abolitionist movement across Asia. While I draw on the important work of various human rights organisations, any views expressed in the course of my posts are entirely my own.

Since my 'day job' is outside the human rights area, I post as often as I can.

I welcome information and story ideas relevant to this blog. I can be contacted by email at:
asiadeathpenalty 'at' gmail dot com

I live in Brisbane.

[Posted 16 August, 2008]