Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Australia's double standards under pressure

There has been renewed criticism of the Australian government's double standards on the death penalty following last week's announcement of four more death sentences for Australians in Indonesia.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has indicated his support for particular executions in recent years. And John Howard and senior government ministers have expressed their satisfaction at death sentences given to Indonesians convicted of attacks on Australians and Australian interests.

In contrast, when Australians face execution in Asia, the government says it will appeal for clemency because the country doesn't support the death penalty.

Amnesty International Australia has asked its supporters to write to the Australian government and urge it to take a position of "clear and principled opposition to the death penalty in the Asia Pacific region".
Professor Tim Lindsey, a director of the Asian Law Centre at the University of Melbourne, wrote last week that the government's failure to actively oppose the death penalty in the region "has left us with low credibility when Australians face the ultimate penalty - the firing squad - in Indonesia.

"Our support for the execution of the Bali bombers has been widely noted in the region, and was raised by Singapore when Australia sought to save Nguyen Tuong Van from death on drug trafficking charges.

"Canberra should use what time is left in the case of the Bali nine to become internationally vocal on the death penalty, not just for Australians, but for anybody, including the Bali bombers, unpleasant though this will be, if it is to have more leverage in Indonesia to help its citizens."

Tim Lindsay concluded: "If we oppose the death penalty, we should do so universally and regardless of citizenship or crime."

The Sydney Morning Herald wrote in its editorial that "Australia's persuasiveness as an advocate [for its citizens on death row] has been compromised by its weakness and inconsistency as an opponent of capital punishment".

An editorial in The Age newspaper said the Australian government "waits until its own nationals have been condemned before speaking out".

"By then it is often too late, as was the case when Nguyen Tuong Van was executed in Singapore last year."

Dr Michael Fullilove from the Lowy Institute said last week that it was very difficult for Australia to argue against the execution of its citizens while supporting the execution of people such as the Bali bombers.

"It's difficult to discern a lot of consistency at the moment in the comments by the Government and other politicians about the execution of, for example, Bali bombers versus Bali drug traffickers and I think that inconsistency attracts adverse comment in the region. It makes us looks hypocritical.

"And I think the best position from which to petition foreign governments on behalf of our own people is that of consistent and strong opposition to the death penalty in all cases," Dr Fullilove said.

'Particularly distressing'
The Age also echoed earlier concerns about the involvement of the Australian Federal Police in providing information to Indonesian police that led to the arrest of the Bali Nine.

"The possible execution of all but one of the Bali Nine is particularly distressing because the Australian Federal Police assisted Indonesian authorities in their arrest. The Government has a duty to its citizens to ensure that its co-operation in international operations does not subject them to barbaric treatment."

Change needed
The Sydney Morning Herald's editorial said "Australia must establish itself as a clear opponent of the death penalty".

"It cannot equivocate as it has when, for example, the Prime Minister, John Howard, said he would not object to death penalties for the Bali bombers and would welcome the execution of Osama bin Laden.

"Having made its position firm, Australia must actively oppose capital punishment generally, not just when Australians are involved. Australia could profitably begin its diplomatic offensive in our region in concert with Asian countries of like mind," the SMH said.

"By working for the abolition of the death sentence everywhere, Australia will make itself a more credible advocate for Australians anywhere.

Singapore hanging
Debate about the Australian government's inconsistent record on the death penalty, and the community's attitudes towards the issue, peaked late last year with the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore.

On Human Rights Day, eight days after Van Nguyen's execution, Amnesty International Australia condemned the government's support for particular death sentences, which it said had "seriously undermined" efforts to argue for clemency.

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

Related stories:
Firing squad for six of Bali Nine -- 11 September, 2006
Bali 9 death sentence confirmed -- 26 April, 2006

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