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".

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