Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Malaysia: Legal questions over death penalty

Death penalty losing appeal

From The Star online
Wednesday 17 November, 2010

The trend worldwide is to move away from the death penalty, acknowledging that the quality of our civilisation is judged as much by how we honour our heroes as by how we treat the worst in our midst.

DURING question time in the Dewan Rakyat on Nov 9, Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz, our articulate Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, in replying to MP Karpal Singh, defended the existing law on death penalty by pointing out that the Malaysian position is consistent with Article 6(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966.

Under this celebrated Covenant, there is no absolute ban on death sentences. However, the "inherent right to life" is recognised and the death sentence may be imposed "only for the most serious crimes".

There must be a right of appeal to the higher courts and the right to apply for pardon. The death sentence should not be imposed on pregnant women and those below 18.

In a spirit of openness, the minister welcomed further discussion on the issue. This must be commended. At the same time, we must alert the Government that on several scores Malaysian law is out of sync with a growing body of international law on capital punishment.

The trend throughout the world is to move away from the death penalty. The Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by 57 states, commits itself to total abolition.

European and American Conventions have also moved in that direction. The UN Commission on Human Rights by Resolution 2004/67 has called for a moratorium on executions.

According to Amnesty International, 87 countries and territories have abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Eleven countries have abolished it for all but exceptional crimes such as war-time betrayals. Twenty-seven countries retain the death penalty but have not carried out any execution for the past 10 years.

This makes a total of 125 countries that have moved away from the death penalty in law or practice. However 71 other countries – including China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US, Malaysia and Singapore – retain, and use, the death penalty.

It is also notable that even for war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide triable by the International Criminal Tribunals created by the United Nations Security Council for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the maximum penalty is life imprisonment.

In most countries of the world, drug offences are not regarded as sufficiently serious to warrant a death penalty. However, drug trafficking carries the mandatory death sentence under section 39B of our Dangerous Drugs Act.

Under Section 37, a number of crushing presumptions apply. For example, a person in the care or management of a premises is deemed to be the occupier of the premises.

A person in possession of 15 grammes of heroin or morphine, 1000 grammes of opium, 200 grammes of cannabis and specified amounts of other dangerous drugs shall be presumed to be a trafficker. The burden of proof is on him.

Reprehensible though drug possession and trafficking are, a clear fact is that people who get caught are often not involved in the high ranks of the supply chain. The main players are neither apprehended nor deterred.

A further objectionable feature of our death penalty laws is that for the crimes of murder, drug trafficking, unlawful possession of firearms and attempt by a life-convict to murder if hurt is caused, capital punishment is mandatory and the court has no choice but to impose the penalty of death.

All mandatory punishment laws compel the courts to treat the many accused as alike even though there may be substantial differences in the facts of the case.

For example, if a woman has been raped and the culprit is, for whatever reason, either not apprehended or acquitted, and the ravished victim then takes the law in her own hands and kills the accused, she may be convicted of cold-blooded murder with only one penalty: mandatory death.

Surely the judge should have discretion in such a case to impose the lighter sanction of imprisonment. To the extent that unlike cases have to be treated as alike, mandatory sentences are a violation of the constitutional ideal of equality before the law and equal protection of the law.

Mandatory sentences are also an indirect interference with judicial independence and the right of a judge to tailor the penalty to suit the crime; to temper justice with mercy and to be fair to all sides – the victim of the crime, the accused and society at large.

Many judges in their private moments have spoken with remorse of the death sentences they had to impose even though there were extenuating circumstances.

There is overwhelming evidence that as long as the death penalty is maintained, the risk of executing the innocent can never be eliminated. For example, in the US, since 1973, 123 prisoners have been released after evidence emerged of their innocence of crimes for which they were sentenced to death.

Their sentences were based on prosecutorial or police misconduct, forced confessions, unreliable witnesses and inadequate defence representation.

The argument that the death penalty deters is not supported by sufficient scientific studies. This is specially so in relation to murder, which is often a crime in the heat of the moment when consequences are farthest from contemplation. Further, UN studies indicate that abolitionist countries do not show any upsurge in crime.

There is a fair amount of social data that, around the world, the death penalty is unequally administered. It tends to apply disproportionately to the poor, marginalised and the minorities.

In support of capital punishment, one could argue that no known legal system exhibits an unconditional and absolute reverence for life.

Everywhere there are laws on private defence of person and property, euthanasia, abortion and police powers that permit the extinguishing of life in certain circumstances. The Charter of the UN permits some types of wars.

Society must take a tough stand against violent crimes and must exact revenge or retribution. It is submitted that this attitude must be balanced with an equally compelling ethical issue that as God gives life, only He should take it away.

The death penalty is a form of legalised murder. It reflects primordial instincts of violence. It perpetuates a vicious cycle of brutality.

I think Malaysia should rethink its extensive provisions for death penalty. At the moment, the penalty can be imposed for a large number of offences – waging war against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, offences against a Ruler or Governor, abetting mutiny in the armed forces, murder, abetment of suicide, attempt by a life-convict to murder if hurt is caused, kidnapping or abduction in order to murder, hostage taking, gang robbery with murder, drug trafficking and unlawful possession of firearms.

Even if total abolition is not seen as desirable because of the age of terrorism in which we are living in, a narrowing down of the offences for which the death penalty is imposed can be considered. The mandatory nature of the penalty could be lifted and judicial discretion restored.

We must remember that the quality of our civilisation is judged as much by how we honour our heroes as by how we treat the worst in our midst.

Shad Saleem Faruqi is Professor Emeritus at UiTM and Honorary Legal Advisor to USM

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