Saturday, 22 July 2006

Malaysia's 'inexcusable' position on death penalty

Leading human rights activists and a newspaper columnist have rejected the Malaysian Government's claim that the death penalty was needed to deter serious crime and safeguard public interest.

Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk M. Kayveas told Parliament on 28 June that: "The Government has no intention of abolishing the death penalty."

The Deputy Minister said the death penalty was "only provided for serious crimes" such as murder and drug trafficking, and there were "enough safeguards" in the judicial system to ensure it was not handed out easily.

N. Surendran and Charles Hector, from the group Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (MADPET), said they were "disappointed" by the Deputy Minister's "unsubstantiated and false statement".

They said in a media release posted on the website of the Malaysia Bar that the statement was "baseless and cannot be justified by any facts or statistical proof", citing studies that have "failed to find convincing evidence that capital punishment is a more effective deterrent of crime than long-term imprisonment".

"The Malaysian government ought to have conducted a thorough study on the effectiveness or ineffectiveness of the death penalty as a deterent to serious crime before having a Deputy Minister, who is a lawyer, stand up in Paliament and attempt to turn a myth into an empirical truth," they said.

Umran Kadir, a columnist with publication Sun 2 Surf, described the Deputy Minister's stance as "an inexcusable position to take when international studies overwhelmingly support the notion that the death penalty is not an effective deterrent to crime".

He said "the ugly truth is that in dispensing justice mistakes can and do happen".

"Civilisation has moved far beyond the time of Hammurabi when "an eye for an eye" was the basis of all laws. The death penalty creates a senseless and vicious cycle of violence. I firmly believe that we are in no position to take away that which God has bequeathed upon each of us," Umran Kadir wrote.

What safeguards?
MADPET also rejected the Deputy Minister's statement that there were adequate safeguards in the judicial system, and described as "laughable" the claim that the country's experienced police provided an additional safeguard against a miscarriage of justice.

"What safeguards is the Honourable Deputy Minister speaking of? In Malaysia there is no immediate access to a lawyer upon arrest, immediate right to a phone call and no right to full pre-trial disclosure [of all evidence to the accused]," they said.

"It must be reiterated that even in jurisdictions where all these safeguards exist, the number of persons wrongfully condemned to death have been frighteningly high. Human justice is dangerously fallible, and the only acceptable choice for any civilized nation is to abolish the death penalty.

"The fact that a person has the right to appeal to the Court of Appeal and then the Federal Court, and thereafter to the Pardons Board for clemency is grossly insufficient to justify the keeping of the Death Penalty in our law books.

"It is laughable that the Deputy Minister even suggested, at this day and time in Malaysia, that thorough investigations carried out by an experienced and effective police force is yet another safeguard to prevent miscarriage of justice," the MADPET statement said.

World turning away
Umran Kadir and MADPET both noted the worldwide trend of countries rejecting the death penalty and referred to the Philippines, which abolished the death penalty last month.

Umran Kadir wrote that: "Malaysia is among a shrinking group of 71 countries that continue to cling on to an unmerciful and irreversible punishment."

"It is high time we let compassion guide us on this issue."

In a footnote to his newspaper column, Umran Kadir noted "with sadness" that from 1970 to the present, 359 people had been condemned to death byMalaysian courts while 159 were currently on death row.

MADPET called for an immediate moratorium on all executions and the complete abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia.

The Deputy Minister tabled a written statement in Malaysia's Dewan Rakyat in response to a question from parliamentarian Karpal Singh.

Friday, 21 July 2006

Malaysia: Life sentence under the noose

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) is investigating the country's long-term death row inmates, including a man who has spent 22 years in prison awaiting execution.

The New Straits Times reported on 28 June that Suhakam came across at least five cases when a team visited death row in Kajang Prison while investigating the death in custody of Alex Wong.

The prisoners, who were convicted of murder, drug trafficking and firearms possession offences, have been held in prison for periods between 10 and 22 years.

The newspaper reported that Suhakam is examining whether the prisoners have in fact received two sentences for their crimes: long-term imprisonment in solitary confinement and a death sentence.

It said authorities would not say why the men had not been executed, but it understood "a combination of administrative hitches and delays in handing down written court judgements have kept these criminals in solitary confinement for years".

"Usually, those sentenced to death spend up to 10 years exhausting the appeals and clemency process," the paper said.

According to the NST, "In 1993, a British court found that it was inhuman and degrading to hang anyone who had spent more than five years on Death Row."

Lawyers welcome inquiry
The Malaysia Bar Council welcomed the report of an investigation by Suhakam and renewed its call for the abolition of the death penalty.

The Malaysia Bar passed a resolution at its annual general meeting on 18 March 2006, calling for an end to the death penalty and for all death sentences to be commuted.

Council Chairman Yeo Yang Poh said in a statement: "Death penalty is a cruel and extreme form of punishment. Keeping a person on death row waiting indefinitely or for a long period of time adds to its cruelty.

"The uncertain and indefinite waiting and fearing for the final moment constitutes inhumane psychological torture, the nature of which those who have not suffered the experience will not even begin to comprehend," Yeo Yang Poh said.

He said this situation was made worse by the fact that prisoners were kept in solitary confinement most of the time "which means that they have to face the suffering all alone".

Yeo Yang Poh said The Bar Council understood the delays were caused by the slow operation of the clemency process because "the Pardons Board convenes infrequently".

"This issue needs urgent attention, as long as capital punishment remains in our statute books," he said.

'An extreme process'
The Bar Council opposed the death penalty because "No legal system in the world is foolproof or error-free".

"No matter how procedurally fair the system is, how stringent the rules of evidence may be, how much reliance is placed on advanced and scientific investigation methods, or how many opportunities of appeal are afforded; one cannot rule out the possibility of error," Yeo Yang Poh said.

"Experience all over the world shows that this possibility is a real and not a theoretical one. Perfection and absolute correctness are neither expected of, nor attainable by, any legal system."

Yeo Yang Poh acknowledged "considerable" public support for the death penalty in Malaysia.

But he questioned whether it was acceptable for an innocent man or woman to be put to death under Malaysia's legal system "because society wishes to punish the guilty ones by employing this most extreme and irredeemable process".

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Abolition sparks human rights debate in Philippines

The President of the Philippines presented the Pope with a copy of the bill abolishing the death penalty, two days after she signed it into law. But the final step in the long campaign to end executions in the Philippines has prompted further debate about human rights in the country.

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo gave Pope Benedict XVI a copy of Republic Act 9346 at their meeting in the Vatican on 26 June.

The act repealed the 1994 legislation that restored the death penalty and commuted all outstanding death sentences to life imprisonment without parole.

A statement from the presidential palace said the presentation to the Pope was a “gift of life” that was "wrapped in the high moral imperatives to walk away from capital punishment."

The statement said that abolition brought "swift emotional and moral relief to the third largest Catholic nation in the world".

"The President has made no secret that the abolition of the capital punishment would add new meaning to her meeting with Catholicism’s No. 1 defender of the sanctity of human life," it said.

The repeal of the death penalty law was criticised by anti-crime and victims' groups, and drew accusations that Mrs Arroyo was seeking support from the Church to strengthen her embattled presidency.

Political analyst Earl Perrano from the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms told BBC News that the death penalty would always be divisive in the Philippines.

"There are often miscarriages of justice as police work in the Philippines is very sloppy and technology is outdated," he told the BBC.

"Because the justice system is very corrupt, most of the convicted are the poor because the rich bribe their way out of a sentence," he said.

'Prison conditions next'
Following victory in the campaign against the death penalty, the Catholic Church's Episcopal Commission on Prison Pastoral Care (ECPPC) plans to step up its campaign to address the state of the prison system.

A conference at the end of July will consider the Church's work with inmates in the Philippine prison system, which has problems with severe overcrowding, disease and detention of vulnerable juvenile prisoners in the same cells as adults. reported that a Manila prison built to hold 800 detainees is currently housing more than 5,000, and the prison in Quezon City is built for 815 people but its population is nearly 3,500.

Call to end political killings
Human rights groups have also highlighted that while judicial killings have now been outlawed, there is a growing problem with extra-judicial killings -- political killings outside the framework of the law.

The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates (PAHRA) "warmly" welcomed the abolition move and called on Mrs Arroyo to address an apparent increase in politically motivated killings.

PAHRA Secretary-General Renato G. Mabunga and FIDH President Sidiki Kaba wrote an open letter to the President on 28 June urging her "to mark a new commitment to the absolute and unequivocal respect of the most fundamental human right, the right to life".

"Reports of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines are received by our organisations with alarming regularity," they wrote in their letter.

"There is a growing pattern of politically motivated killings, reported across a number of provinces nationwide. Witnesses have reported victims being shot dead by unidentified men, suspected of links with the military, police, and other security forces.

"The principal targets of the shootings are human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, community leaders, and union workers who speak out against the authorities. Groups and individuals identified with the opposition are increasingly at risk. Over the past year dozens of activists identified with opposition groups have been killed."

Mr Mabunga and Mr Kaba accused the government of consistently failing to investigate or bring to justice the people responsible for the attacks.

"This climate of impunity further fuels human rights violations," they said.

They called on the Philippine authorities to meet their obligations under international human rights standards by conducting prompt, thorough and impartial investigations into all extra-judicial killings, and ensuring that those identified as responsible were brought to justice before independent and impartial tribunals.

"Our organisations call upon you as President to send a clear and strong message that these unlawful killings will not be tolerated under any circumstances" they said.

President Arroyo signs death penalty law

With one signature the death penalty was formally abolished in the Philippines and more than 1,000 people spared execution.

President Arroyo signed into law Republic Act 9346 abolishing the death penalty at a ceremony at the MalacaƱang presidential palace on 24 June 2006. The act commutes all death sentences to life imprisonment without parole.

The President signed the law one day before she was due to fly to the Vatican to meet the Pope.

Her signature formally ratified the bills passed by both houses of the Philippines Congress on 6 June.

At the signing ceremony she said that in gathering together to abolish the death penalty, "we celebrate life in the most meaningful way".

She said she appreciated the "enthusiasm of Congress" and thanked the church for providing a "beacon of grace and discernment".

"When I meet the Holy Father soon in the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony," she said.

The President acknowledged concerns that abolishing the death penalty would lead to an increase in serious crime in the Philippines, and she committed her government to efforts to prevent and control crime.

"I allay the concerns of those who think that the abolition of the death penalty opens the floodgates to heinous acts... We shall continue to devote the increasing weight of our resources to the prevention and control of serious crimes, rather than take the lives of those who commit them," she said.

A report from the palace said Archbishop Fernando Filoni, Apostolic Nuncio to the Philippines, welcomed the move saying "this (abolition) shows that the culture of life is alive and important".

The report said the ceremony was witnessed by "the principal authors of the bill" Reps. Edcel Lagman, Salacnib Baterina and Rene Velarde, from the House of Representatives, and Senators Francis Pangilinan and Juan Flavier from the Senate.

Members of a number of non-government organisations which had lobbied Congress for the abolition of the death penalty were also present. They included Couples for Christ, the National Interfaith Convention Committee, the Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Samahang Pamilya sa Death Row, the Free Legal Assistance Group and Isaiah Prison Ministry.

The President's speech

The President's full speech on the occasion is reproduced below.

PGMA's Speech during the signing into law of the House Bill Abolishing the Death Penalty or Republic Act 9346 or An Act Prohibiting the Imposition of Death Penalty in the Philippines
Saturday, June 24, 2006
Rizal Hall, MalacaƱang

"Thank you, Secretary Ermita.

"Today in signing the abolition of the death penalty, we celebrate life in the most meaningful way by gathering our institutions together to repeal the death penalty.

"I appreciate the enthusiasm of Congress in expressing the moral and spiritual force of the Filipino in this law.

"I thank the church for the beacon of grace and discernment. When I meet the Holy Father soon in the Vatican, I shall tell him that we have acted in the name of life for a world of peace and harmony.

"I allay the concerns of those who think that the abolition of the death penalty opens the floodgates to heinous acts. We shall devote... We shall continue to devote the increasing weight of our resources to the prevention and control of serious crimes, rather than take the lives of those who commit them.

"I call on the entire criminal justice system -- law enforcers, prosecutors, judges, jailers and the whole community -- to take stock of the responsibility of sharpening law and justice for all.

"On the bombing in Maguindanao targeted at the governor and which killed five people, I condemn this act of terrorism in the strongest terms as a crime against peace and humanity. The authorities must identify the perpetrators, launch a manhunt with the proper rewards, and bring them to justice.

"I extend my sympathies to the families of the victims and assure them that the search for justice will be firm and relentless. We will never be intimidated by these treacherous acts and we shall fight terror as seriously as we embrace peace and development, solidarity among our law-abiding citizens, and our strategic alliances. This commitment stands firm and will not relent until the total defeat of terrorists in every part of the country.

"The rule of law, strictly enforced, shall ride side by side with social justice in paving the way for an atmosphere of political and economic security, so that every person and family shall have the blessings of stable employment, better health, education and public safety.

"We have taken a strong hand against the threats to the law and the republic, but at the same time we yield to the high moral imperatives dictated by God to walk away from capital punishment."


Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Trade undisturbed by Singapore execution

Singapore's Prime Minister visited Australia in mid-June and both governments agreed that the "difficult issue" of a hanging would not interrupt a strong and lucrative relationship.

On 14 June a 19-gun salute welcomed Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Parliament House in Canberra for official talks on trade and security issues.

Mr Lee's visit, his first as prime minister, came nearly seven months after the Singapore Government hanged convicted Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen.

The execution was carried out on 2 December 2005 despite repeated appeals for clemency from the Australian government and widespread protest in the Australian community.

'Could not be closer'
At a joint press conference at Parliament House, Australian Prime Minister John Howard said "Australia and Singapore could not be closer", and referred to the two countries' common interests in strategic, defence and free trade issues.

Prime Minister Lee said the relationship between the two countries was "in good shape" despite having had "some difficult issues to deal with over the last year".

His remarks were widely interpreted to refer to the execution of Van Nguyen and disagreements over Singapore's access to Australian international aviation routes.

Mr Lee said these issues were handled "within the overall understanding that we are really strategic partners, Singapore with an interest in having Australia engaged in the region and Australia working with Singapore as a long term friend".

"These are issues which we can manage and keep in proportion as we move forward," he said.

Singapore is Australia's eight largest trading and investment partner and its largest trade and investment partner in ASEAN.

Death penalty to stay
When asked whether Singapore was going to soften its policy of executing or others convicted of drug crime, Mr Lee said the death penalty was "part of our criminal justice system, that applies in particular to drug traffickers whether they’re Singaporeans or foreigners".

"It is not targeted at Australians or any particular country but it is a set of laws which apply in Singapore in which we have to enforce impartially and which we will continue to do so."

In an interview with The Australian newspaper prior to his visit, Mr Lee said he accepted many Australians were opposed to the death penalty, but he said many also supported his government's policy.

"I don't think Australian pressure on high-profile cases like these will cause any Southeast Asian nation to change its position on the death penalty," he said.

Following the execution in December, Amnesty International Australia criticised the Australian government's "selective opposition" to the death penalty.

"Australia cannot support the death penalty when it is convenient and then argue that Australian citizens should be the only people spared execution," the organisation said.

"Australia should take a principled stance against the death penalty and not be afraid to express its views throughout the region. It is not unrealistic to expect Australia to take a strong and unapologetic position on such a cruel and inhuman punishment."

Sunday, 2 July 2006

Political questions over China's new appeal judges

China's supreme court is preparing to hear appeals against death sentences, but it appears the new system will still raise concerns about political interference in the administration of the death penalty.

Xinhua newsagency reports the Supreme People's Court (SPC) is recruiting new judges from a list of experienced lawyers and law teachers nominated by provincial judicial organs.

The report said those with "strong political qualifications and a sense of responsibility" would be chosen as judges to hear death penalty reviews, according to SPC Vice-President Xiong Xuanguo.

In April, Xinhua reported that tribunal staff had been selected from regional courts across China and they were receiving a month of training in Beijing.

Xinhua said that the move by the SPC "appears to be a response to many Chinese media reports in recent years, which exposed wrongful death penalty sentences, sparking public debate". (See the ADP report here.)

It is still unclear when the supreme court will begin hearing appeals or how the provincial courts will respond to the reassertion of authority by the SPC.

Xiong Xuanguo was quoted in the latest Xinhua report as saying: "Taking back the power of death penalty review is the final safeguard (against miscarriages of justice). We'll ensure the sentence is appropriate and follow the principle of strictly controlling the passing down of the death penalty."

Xinhua said the SPC's appeal judges may question the defendant and hear the prosecution arguments, where the case is in dispute between the prosecution and defence.

Where the prosecution and defence "do not have conflicting opinions", the SPC is likely to base its decision on a review of the files from the hearings in the local courts.