Monday, 19 February 2007

South Korea: death penalty not on 'roadmap'

A new human rights 'roadmap' issued by South Korea's Ministry of Justice has ignored calls for the abolition of the death penalty.

The roadmap for human rights protection, announced on 13 February, deferred a decision on abolishing the death penalty, according to the English language edition of The Hankyoreh.

South Korea's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has repeatedly called for the country to move towards abolition.

The roadmap also ignored calls for the abolition of the country's notorious National Security Law.

The ministry said it was deferring a decision on the death penalty, but in the first half of this year it would review whether the penalty should be abolished.

It said the government would consider the introduction of an 'absolute life sentence' and would try to take into account the outcome of the current National Assembly discussion of a bill abolishing the death penalty.

In February 2006, the Ministry of Justice also announced it would review the death penalty and consider replacing it with a sentence of life imprisonment. At the time, this was seen as a significant concession from a ministry that had previously opposed moves towards abolition in the National Assembly.

The Hankyoreh report said the NHRC "could not understand why the Ministry of Justice's draft sought to defer a decision on abolishing the National Security Law and [the] death penalty".

In 2005, South Korea’s National Human Rights Commission recommended the death penalty be abolished, and in early 2006 it recommended the government set out a plan for human rights.

The last executions in South Korea were carried out in December 1997, when 23 people were hanged.

Related stories:
Call for South Korea to show 'leadership' -- 27 June , 2006
South Korea death penalty hearing -- 10 April, 2006
South Korea: Kim Dae-jung's call for abolition -- 06 March, 2006
South Korea – former president calls for abolition -- 27 February, 2006
Positive signs in the Philippines and South Korea -- 22 February, 2006

Tuesday, 13 February 2007

'Ryan was innocent': lawyer

In our piece on the 40th anniversary of Ronald Ryan's hanging, we noted that his lawyer had always claimed he was innocent, a view rejected again last week by his biographer.

Mike Richards, author of The Hanged Man: The Life and Death of Ronald Ryan, said the condemned man confessed to the Pentridge prison governor the night before he was executed.
A reader has drawn our attention to a 2002 letter by defence barrister Phillip Opas detailing the final steps in his efforts to save his client's life

"I will go to my grave firmly of the opinion that Ronald Ryan did not commit murder," he wrote.

"I refuse to believe that at any time he told anyone that he did. When all hope of a reprieve had gone and he had decided that he might as well declare his guilt (if that was the fact) there are two people whom I believe he would have told and they were Father Brosnan and me.
"Father Brosnan and I have formed a lifelong friendship since the hanging, and Father has told me that Ryan never made any admission of guilt to him," Opas wrote.

He said Ryan "always vehemently denied" that he had shot and killed prison warder George Hodson.

While he planned a final appeal to the Privy Council, he believed it would ultimately fail but it would buy "time to create a groundswell of public opinion that would prevent the government from carrying out its declared intention of executing him".

According to Opus, Ryan replied: "We've all got to go some time, but I don't want to go this way for something I didn't do."
"Then he smiled and added, "You know, mate, we're playing time on. If you don't kick a goal soon, we're going to lose this match," Opus wrote.
It was the last time he saw his client.
Contesting the fatal shot
In the letter, Opus outlined the basis for his opinion that "not only did he not fire a shot, but that he could not have fired the shot that killed the warder".
It detailed facts which Dr Opas said "could neither lie nor be mistaken", including:
  • witnesses claiming to have seen Ryan's shoulder jerk back and smoke coming from the barrel of the gun, when in fact that type of rifle had no recoil and it contained smokeless cartridges
  • the lack of any forensic evidence that the gun was ever fired when it was in Ryan's possession
  • a call Opas received a few years after the hanging, claiming that a prison officer had found the ninth round from Ryan's gun, which the caller claimed was dropped in the tower. The anonymous caller said the prison officer was forced by superiors to change his statement to omit all reference to the bullets, after he was threatened with a charge of "conspiring with the prisoners to help the escape"
  • calculations that Ryan could not have shot Hodson at the downwards angle indicated by his entry and exit wounds, contrasted with
  • statements that another prisoner officer had taken aim at Ryan while standing on a low stone wall in front of the jail, but pulled the gun up as he fired, a move which could have seen Hodson shot from the correct angle.
Dr Opas concluded: "Ryan was the unfortunate victim of the Premier's determination to have a hanging."

"I will always be troubled by the feeling that Ryan should have been acquitted and that I must have been inadequate for the task of defending him," he wrote.

Letter published: Victorian Bar News, Issue No: 122, Spring Edition 2002, 1/09/2002

(Anon, thanks for the tip.)

Monday, 5 February 2007

Ronald Ryan forty years on

Key people involved in the trial and execution of Ronald Ryan last weekend commemorated the fortieth anniversary of his death - the last judicial hanging in Australia.

Ryan was hanged at 8am on 3 February 1967, in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison.

He was sentenced to death for the murder of prison officer George Hodson, who was shot during a prison escape by Ryan and Peter Walker in December 1965.

The escape sparked "the biggest police manhunt in the state's history," according to Mike Richards, Ryan's biographer.

Over 17 days on the run, they held up a bank at gunpoint and Walker killed an associate, fearing he would give them up to police.

Richards said there was "widespread and genuine fear [of the two men] in the Melbourne community", accompanied by "saturation media coverage" until they were recaptured.

Ryan, a long-term petty criminal before the prison escape, was given a mandatory death sentence following his conviction for murder.

Defence counsel Dr Philip Opas has always argued Ryan was innocent, pointing to inconsistent witness statements and confusion over whether his gun could be proven to have killed the prison officer.

But his biographer accepted his guilt, and last weekend Richards wrote that Ryan confessed to Pentridge prison governor Ian Grindlay the night before he was hanged.

He said Ryan had fired so Hodson would not recapture Walker, and quoted Ryan as saying: "I did shoot him. But I didn't mean to kill him . . . only to stop him."

Protest at 'political hanging'

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, most death sentences in Victoria were routinely commuted to life imprisonment.

In the summer of 1966-67, lawyers, students and church leaders organised an extraordinary campaign for clemency, but Liberal premier Henry Bolte appeared determined to prove his credentials on crime by insisting on Ryan's execution.

Pleas for mercy from key community leaders were concealed from Bolte's cabinet colleagues, and the premier ignored requests from Dr Opas to address cabinet. Members of Ryan's jury, who had not believed the death sentence would ever be carried out, also petitioned the state governor.

On the morning of the execution, thousands joined protests outside Pentridge Prison.

"Ryan was hanged for political reasons and I don't believe those kind of reasons have changed anywhere in the world where people are executed," Dr Opus said last week. "Bolte said 'nothing transcends politics'."

Former Anglican bishop Tom Frame noted the day before the anniversary that: "At the Victorian state elections held 85 days after the execution, Bolte increased his party's primary vote and parliamentary majority."

Ryan's other legacy: Abolition
The controversy surrounding Ryan's hanging generated widespread revulsion at the use of the death penalty - and its politicisation - and created the momentum for eventual abolition across Australia.

According to biographer Mike Richards, who led student protests in the months before the execution, "it marks the event that prompted state governments still retaining the death penalty to cut the crimson thread running through Australia's history and abolish capital punishment".

"It ensured that no government anywhere in the country would politically risk imposing the death penalty again," Richards wrote.

Over the next 18 years, capital punishment was abolished under Commonwealth law and in seven states and territories. By 1985, the country was completely abolitionist.