Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Viet Nam: Life, and death, sentences for drugs

In the past month, two Vietnamese-born western citizens have seen very different outcomes in appeals against their sentences for drug offences.

The legal charity Repreive announced in early April that UK citizen Le Manh Luong was granted clemency by President Nguyen Minh Triet.

Repreive led a high-profile campaign on behalf of Mr Luong, who was sentenced to death in November 2006.

He was convicted along with three Vietnamese defendants for trafficking 339 kilograms of heroin through Viet Nam to Hong Kong and China.

In contrast, in mid-March an appeal court increased to death the sentence given to Vietnamese-Australian Jasmine Luong, according to an AFP report.

Ms Luong was arrested in Tan Son Nhat airport in February 2007 with nearly 1.5 kilograms of heroin hidden in her luggage and shoes.

Prosecutors appealed against the original life sentence imposed in December 2007.

Clemency hope
She now has the right to appeal to the president for clemency, and the Sydney Morning Herald reported the Australian Prime Minister and Foreign Minister were expected to support an appeal.

The decision to grant clemency to Mr Luong should raise hopes that she would also be successful in having her death sentence overturned.

Five Australians have had their death sentences commuted in Viet Nam since 2003, in all five cases with the support of strong representations from the Australian government appealing for the sentences to be commuted.

Another Australian citizen, Tony Manh, is waiting for a response to his application for clemency, after an appeal court confirmed his death sentence in November 2007 for heroin trafficking.

'Debt forced decision'
According to the report by the Sydney Morning Herald, Ms Luong was expected to argue in her application for clemency that she agreed to carry the drugs to pay her estranged husband's gambling debts.

The newspaper said she claimed she was offered $US15,000 (AUD$16,620) by an unidentified man to carry the drugs to Sydney, and given $US4700 payment in advance.

Her two children were being cared for by relatives in Sydney.

'What is heroin?'
According to information released by Reprieve, Mr Luong suffered from brain damage after his house was bombed by a US B-52 bomber during the Viet Nam War.

The organisation said he suffered from clinical depression and displayed suicidal tendencies, and his lawyer believed the other defendants used him as a scapegoat, knowing of his mental health issues.

Mr Luong reportedly asked the court during his trial questions such as: "What is heroin?" and "What is a weapon?"

His niece and family spokesperson, Thanh Le, said in a Reprieve statement that "he will [now] have the horrific ankle and wrist shackles removed".

"My uncle’s death sentence has put an incredible strain on the family but we have been overwhelmed by the support for him," she said.

The fate of Mr Luong's Vietnamese co-defendants has not been reported.

Related stories:
Drug penalty violates international law -- 06 May, 2007
Viet Nam death penalty "not deterring drugs" -- 25 November, 2006
Another Australian spared in Viet Nam – 19 November, 2006
Viet Nam: Take action against the death penalty -- 24 June, 2006
To begin, good news in Viet Nam -- 18 February, 2006

Sunday, 20 April 2008

Judge backs harsh sentences: China

China's Chief Justice has said violent criminals should be severely punished, including with death sentences, marking a clear departure from his predecessor who encouraged a 'cautious' use of the death penalty.

President of the Supreme People's Court, Wang Shengjun, said during a court inspection in Guangdong province that tough sentences were necessary to ensure the public's sense of security.

"Courts at all levels should severely punish those violent criminals that seriously jeopardize public security, especially those involved in gangsters or organized crimes and terrorism," Wang said in a report by state-run newsagency Xinhua.

According to The Associated Press he added: "Where the law mandates the death sentence, the death sentence should be given."

Wang said crimes that involved terrorism, organised groups or violence, and crimes that "seriously threaten social order" should be dealt with especially harshly.

His remarks contrasted with the more measured approach of the previous Chief Justice, Xiao Yang, who in November 2006 urged the country's courts to use "extreme caution" when handing down death sentences and said every judgement should "stand the test of time".

"In cases where the judge has legal leeway to decide whether to order death, he should always choose not to do so," Xiao Yang said, according to a Xinhua report.

The death sentence should be reserved for only an "extremely small number" of serious offenders, he said.

Fewer, but necessary
A senior Chinese judge recently said more death sentences were overturned on appeal last year, but the death penalty was still needed in the country.

Huang Ermei, head of the Supreme People's Court criminal case chamber, said in March that the death penalty suited the country's current level of development and was needed to deter crime.

The Associated Press reported her comments were posted in an interview on the government China Peace Web site.

"Abolishing the death penalty is an international trend in punishment, but this trend cannot be divorced from a country's own conditions," Huang said.

"Currently our country does not have the conditions to abolish the death penalty and will not have those conditions for a considerable period of time."

She said the Supreme People's Court last year rejected 15 per cent of death sentences imposed by local courts.

The Beijing Morning Post said the verdicts were overturned "because facts surrounding initial convictions were unclear, evidence insufficient, punishment inappropriate, procedures illegal and other reasons".

Since 1 January 2007, all death sentences had to be reviewed by the Supreme People's Court before they could be carried out.

Huang said the death penalty was mostly applied for murder and other violent crimes, drug trafficking and crimes against social order, but it was also used for serious economic crimes and corruption.

The Chinese government again provided no meaningful statistics on the use of the death penalty, combining the number of death sentences with all custodial sentences over five years.

Related stories:
Party claims economic penalty 'prudent' -- 4 August, 2007
China: Courts claim fewer executions -- 31 July, 2007
China call for cautious death penalty - again -- 8 April, 2007
China: Judges try to limit death penalty -- 14 November, 2006
China reforms good, but not enough -- 8 November, 2006
China: Supreme Court review from January -- 1 November, 2006
Political questions over China's new appeal judges -- 2 July, 2006
China to retain death penalty, with reforms -- 13 March 2006

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Asia leads the world's known executions

Asian countries have once again lead the world's known executions, according to annual statistics released today by Amnesty International (AI).

The human rights organisation reported that during 2007, at least 1252 people were executed in 24 countries, and at least 3347 people were sentenced to death in 51 countries.

Ten countries accounted for 1205 of the known executions in the past year -- or 96 per cent of the global total.

Half of these ten countries are in Asia, between them accounting for 962 of known executions -- 77 per cent of the global total.

The top ten executioners included:

China 470+
Iran 317+
Pakistan 135+
Viet Nam 25+
Afghanistan 15

The statistics recorded a drop in the number of known executions in China, but sharp increases in the numbers recorded in Iran, Pakistan and Viet Nam.

China recorded a drop from more than 1010 known executions in 2006.

In Iran there were 177 executions counted in 2006, Pakistan 82 and Viet Nam 14.

AI estimated the global death row population was between 18,311 and 27,562 people at the end of 2007, based on the number of people thought to be condemned to death and awaiting execution.

Brutal secrets
These figures must be taken with caution, however, since they record only those executions that are publicly known.

For a penalty that is shrouded in such secrecy in many countries, the true number of executions each year is certainly significantly higher.

The AI report Death sentences and executions in 2007 highlighted China, Singapore, Malaysia and Mongolia as among the many countries that "carry out executions in secret and refuse to divulge any information on the use of the death penalty".

"The United Nations has repeatedly called for the death penalty only to be used in an open and transparent manner," AI said.

It said China was "the world's top executioner", classifying the death penalty as a state secret.

"As the world and Olympic guests are left guessing, only the Chinese authorities know exactly how many people have been killed with state authorization," AI said in a media release.

"The secretive use of the death penalty must stop: the veil of secrecy surrounding the death penalty must be lifted. Many governments claim that executions take place with public support. People therefore have a right to know what is being done in their name."

Asia's table
Amnesty International's 2007 figures for the Asian region:

15 executions
death sentences

6 executions
93 death sentences

470+ executions
1860+ death sentences

100+ death sentences

1+ executions
11+ death sentences

317+ executions
Unknown number of death sentences

9 executions
23 death sentences

12 death sentences

45 death sentences

North Korea
Unknown number of executions
Unknown number of death sentences

135+ executions
307+ death sentences

Papua New Guinea
3+ death sentences

2 executions
2 death sentences

South Korea
2 death sentences

Sri Lanka
10+ death sentences

5 death sentences

6+ death sentences

Viet Nam
25+ executions
83+ death sentences

AI said it was concerned that Mongolia and Malaysia may have executed people, but "due to the secretive nature of the use of the death penalty the organization was unable to obtain reliable information".

Related stories:
20,000 waiting to be killed – 23 April, 2006

Saturday, 12 April 2008

Executions in Japan -- 2006 - 2008

Note: This post has been updated here to the end of 2008.

Japan has executed 20 people since December 2006. All were hanged for crimes including murder.

Ten executions were approved by the current Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama, who was appointed on 27 August 2007.

The other ten were executed in eleven months by his predecessor, Jinen Nagase, who was appointed Justice Minister on 26 September 2006. At the time he left office, it was the highest number of executions approved by any one justice minister since a moratorium on the death penalty was lifted in 1993.

The 20 executed were:

10 April 2008
Masahito Sakamoto, 41 (Tokyo)
Kaoru Okashita, 61 (Tokyo)
Katsuyoshi Nakamoto, 64 (Osaka)
Masaharu Nakamura, 61 (Osaka)

1 February 2008
Masahiko Matsubara, 63 (Osaka)
Takashi Mochida, 65 (Tokyo)
Keishi Nago, 37 (Fukuoka)

7 December 2007
Seiha Fujima, 47 (Tokyo)
Hiroki Fukawa, 42 (Tokyo)
Noboru Ikemoto, 75 (Osaka)

23 August, 2007
Hifumi Takezawa
, 69 (Tokyo)
Yoshio Iwamoto, 63 (Tokyo)
Kozo Segawa, 60 (Nagoya)

27 April 2007
Kosaku Nata, 56 (Osaka)
Yoshikatsu Oda, 59 (Fukuoka)
Masahiro Tanaka, (also Miyashita), 42 (Tokyo)

25 December 2006
Yoshimitsu Akiyama, 77 (Tokyo)
Hiroaki Hidaka, 44 (Hiroshima)
Yoshio Fujinami, 75 (Tokyo)
Michio Fukuoka, 64 (Osaka)

Seiken Sugiura was Justice Minister from October 2005 - September 2005, when no executions were carried out as a result of his Buddhist religious beliefs.

The last execution prior to his appointment was reported to have been on 16 September 2005.

Japan: Minister steps up rate of hangings

Japan hanged four death row prisoners on Thursday this week (10 April), marking a sharp increase in the rate of hangings in the past two years.

The latest executions bring to ten the number of death warrants approved by Justice Minister Kunio Hatoyama. He has approved in four months the same number of hangings his predecessor approved in 11 months.

The justice ministry confirmed the identity of the four men, only the third time it had done so. They were Katsuyoshi Nakamoto, 64, Masaharu Nakamura, 61, Masahito Sakamoto, 41, and Kaoru Okashita, 61.

Nakamoto and Nakamura were hanged in Osaka, and Sakamoto and Okashita in Tokyo.

The BBC online reported that Hatoyama dismissed concerns about the increase in executions.

"I have not paid any attention to the interval [since February's executions]," he told reporters.

"As justice minister, I am simply carrying out the demands of the law."

As well as the rate of executions increasing, it also appears the minister is moving to implement faster executions after a death sentence is confirmed, something he called for in September 2007.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported three of the four men executed were hanged within four years of their death sentences being finalised. During the previous decade, the average wait was about eight years.

Human rights concern
Human rights organisation Amnesty International said it deeply regretted the latest executions, and expressed its alarm at the current rate of hangings.

The organisation's Japan chapter condemned the executions and questioned the guilt of three of the men hanged.

"It is unforgivable that the executions were again conducted secretly," said spokesperson Makoto Teranaka, according to a report by the AFP newsagency.

"Observing the current pace of executions, we can't help but predict a huge number of executions this year, which goes totally against the world trend of abolishing capital punishment and is a shame on Japan."

The organisation said two of the executed prisoners were acquitted in early trials, and a third continued to insist on his innocence. It said the fourth may have been mentally ill.

Concerns about the pace of executions were echoed in a statement issued by Amnesty International in London.

"We are extremely concerned about the increased number of executions,” the statement said.

"We call on the Japanese government to adopt an immediate moratorium on executions in accordance with last year's UN resolution."

The United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions as a step towards abolition, by a majority of 104 votes to 54.

A poet silenced
According to the AFP report, the four executed this week included a poet who wrote traditional poetry expressing remorse for the two murders for which he was convicted.

Kaoru Okashita, who also used the surname Akinaga, wrote traditional tanka poetry on death row.

The head of a tanka club who published Okashita's poetry said he regularly sent her poems and she had only just sent back the latest proof-read verse.

"He once told me he hoped to live until next year when our group's tanka anthology is published. But his wish wasn't realised," Keiko Mitsumoto said.

"His poetry was very, very gentle and even offered solace and encouragement to me. I could hardly believe he would commit murder.

"He said he feared the day would suddenly come when the footsteps of a guard would stop in front of his cell to announce his execution.

"He seemed prepared for that, though, along with not meeting those close to him for a final farewell."

Related stories:
Japan: Sixteen hanged in thirteen months -- 04 February, 2008
Japan finally names three executed -- 9 December, 2007
Minister wants ‘tranquil’ killing: Japan -- 29 October, 2007
Japan: New minister will approve hangings -- 4 September, 2007
Japan executed mentally ill man -- 26 August, 2007
Long wait, sudden death in Japan -- 28 August, 2006

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

South Korea: Death penalty for child murders?

South Korean prosecutors will seek sentences of life imprisonment or the death penalty for people who have sexually assaulted and killed children under 13 years of age, according to an announcement by the Ministry of Justice in early April.

The Ministry presented the proposal to a Cabinet meeting following the sexual abuse and murder of two children in December and an attempted kidnapping in March.

"Such criminals who commit sexual assaults and murder after kidnapping children should be subject to stiff penalties such as life imprisonment or capital punishment,'' Prime Minister Han Seung-soo said after the meeting, according to The Korea Times.

"Crimes against children cannot be tolerated at all," he said.

"Ministries related to public security should map out measures against such inhumane crimes."

The Ministry has proposed other measures to combat a reported rise in sexual assaults on children. These include the creation of a DNA database to help monitor sex offenders and an increase in the minimum sentence for sex offences against children to seven years.

South Korea was declared abolitionist "in practice" on 30 December 2007, after it had not executed anyone for 10 years. It brought to 135 the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

The Korea Times said in its editorial that the country needed stiffer prison sentences and improved medical treatment of paedophiles and other sex offenders.

In November 2007, the newspaper called for complete abolition of the death penalty, saying the National Assembly should deal with an abolition bill before it "as soon as possible".

"Human judgment isn't perfect. Once someone is executed, there is no way to reverse this even if the person is later found to be innocent," the newspaper said.

Related stories:
South Korea: 100 days for abolition -- 6 February, 2008
South Korea: Renewed calls for abolition -- 12 October, 2007
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 -- 6 March, 2006
South Korea – former president calls for abolition -- 27 February, 2006