Is Capital Punishment Relevant Today?

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By P. Francis

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BARBARIC to some, has capital punishment gone past its use-by date? Is the march to the gallows obsolete? Does the electric chair or death by lethal injection strike fear in would-be criminals? These questions have sparked fiery debates for years between the righteous and the ‘bleeding hearts’.

Today, how many countries still have the death penalty? The USA – the world champion of human rights – is one of 58 countries continuing with it; 97 nations have abolished it and the rest have not used it for 10 years, according to wikipedia. However, Amnesty International has reported 140 nations have abolished the death penalty. Last year, only Latvia abolished it while 21 countries had executions and 63 passed the death sentence.

An eye for eye comes from the best-selling book of all time – the Bible. However, freedom fighter Mohandas Gandhi, who always advocated peaceful means of civil disobedience, has been attributed the quote: “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind”. The great Mahatma (Sanskrit for ‘Great Soul’) seems to have had a valid point and huge support.

Meanwhile, over seven weeks this year, there has been a strong move to galvanise the world against the death penalty:

12-15 June: Madrid hosted the 5th World Congress Against the Death Penalty in Spain this year – attended by 90 countries. Anabel Sánchez Sierra wrote in Periodismo Ciudadano: “Key issues discussed included the abolition of the death penalty, along with the related issues of adherence to human rights treaties, the procurement of a moratorium on death penalty convictions, and the establishment of penal code reforms. The idea for this international event was generated at the previous convention, held in Geneva in 2010. At that time, Spain committed to creating the ‘Comisión Internacional Contra la Pena de Muerte’, or International Commission Against the Death Penalty (established that same year at the World Day Against the Death Penalty) for the purpose of achieving a universal moratorium on the death penalty within the next five years.”

The attendees at the congress heard messages from South Africa’s Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, Pope Francis, and other influential leaders. Rachel Zeng of the Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign (SADPC), who was there, confirmed: “Ms Ong Xiao Yun from Think Centre and myself from SADPC were in Madrid for the congress. I was there as part of Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN).”

So did Singapore send an official representative to the congress? Ms Zeng said: “Not that I know of.” However, Madasamy Ravi, a lawyer and member of ADPAN, Singapore was involved in the plenary session on Asia.

28 June: The UN News Centre said that Ban Ki-moon urged United Nations Member States to move towards the abolition of the death penalty, and called on countries where the procedure is still practised to increase transparency to allow a serious debate on capital punishment. “The taking of life is too absolute, too irreversible, for one human being to inflict on another, even when backed by legal process,” Mr Ban said opening the high-level event and panel discussion at UN Headquarters in New York, on ‘Moving away from the death penalty – Wrongful Convictions’. “We have a duty to prevent innocent people from paying the ultimate price for miscarriages of justice. The most sensible way is to end the death penalty.”

27 July: A report on news.com.au said that fewer executions of death penalties occurred last year according to the Italian NGO Hands off Cain. The report said the worldwide figures fell from 5,004 in 2011 to 3,967 in 2012. The total of nations without capital punishment rose from 155 to 158 for the same period. “The significant decrease in death penalties is to a great extent thanks to China, where they dropped from 4,000 to 3,000 in just a year,” Italian Foreign Minister Emma Bonino said at the presentation of the report. China saw a drop of 10% each year from 2007 because a new law required death sentences to be heard in the Supreme Court, the report added. However, China remains top of the Hands off Cain blacklist, ahead of Iran (580 in 2012) and Iraq (nearly doubled to 129 in 2012). The report added: “Although 33 of the 40 countries that still have the death penalty are ruled by despots, some ‘liberal democracies’ returned to capital punishment in 2012.”

Singapore still enforces death by hanging – the last Australian hanged in the republic was Van Tuong Nguyen on 2 Dec 2005 for drug trafficking about 396.2g of heroin – more than 26 times the amount for which the death penalty is mandatory in the Lion City. Despite pleas for clemency by the Australian Government, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth and Amnesty International and other groups, the Singapore Government stood firm, perhaps on principle – so much so that Australian PM John Howard could not sway his Singapore counterpart Lee Hsien Loong to help the accused, who was remorseful, co-operated with the police and had been baptised as Caleb while in Changi prison.

Australia’s Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) last month screened a two-part dramatised miniseries produced by Khoa Do – called Better Man – which relived the trauma and tragedy of the events and how it affected Van’s mother and twin brother. It was a powerful performance and sent an unmistakable message to those travelling overseas that there are severe penalties in some countries, especially Singapore, and to respect their laws.

However, a minute concession has been made to Singapore’s capital punishment law. On 9 July last year, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean told parliament that he was easing the death penalty for traffickers, but only if they had acted solely as a courier and did not supply or distribute the drug.

Meanwhile, there will be a stay of executions at Changi since the laws have now been amended to accommodate the tweaking on 14 Nov last year. The more than 30 prisoners on Death Row – mostly on drug offences – will be able to re-apply for sentencing. This could mean life imprisonment with the rotan (caning).

With regard to murder, Law Minister K. Shanmugam told the House – on the same day as the DPM – that the government wished to retain capital punishment only for murders with an intention to kill. If there was no outright motive to kill, the sentence could be either the death penalty or a life sentence.

This begs the rhetorical question: If Van Tuong Nguyen had been arrested in Singapore for drug trafficking this year instead of more than 10 years ago, would he have avoided the hangman? Perhaps not, because nothing may have changed until his case generated wide publicity to prompt the amendment.

Only this week, Gopinathan Nair Remadevi Bijukumar, 37, had his murder conviction reduced to life imprisonment and 18 strokes of the cane – the third re-sentencing since Singapore’s law on the death penalty was amended.

Indonesia, too, has a Death Row where two Australians await execution for drug offences committed in April 2005. Ringleaders of the group dubbed The Bali Nine by the media, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, were sentenced to death by firing squad. Appeals for clemency to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono have been in vain and their execution is imminent.

However, some Australians have said: “Do the crime, do the time!” They have argued that these drug mules cause widespread pain, suffering and sometimes death to youngsters and they deserve the maximum sentences.

But, in the Ten Commandments, made famous in the blockbuster movie of the same name by Cecil B DeMille – starring Charlton Heston as Moses and Yul Bryner as Pharaoh his half-brother – in 1956, the sixth commandment proclaimed Thou shall not kill.

In Australia, the death penalty was fully abolished in 1985. Last September, the horrific rape and murder of Irish woman Jillian Meagher made headlines around the world. She was attacked as she walked home on a busy street after Friday night drinks with colleagues in inner Melbourne. Subsequently, more than 30,000 people marched down Sydney Road in Brunswick – the scene of the crime – demanding safety for women in the streets. The killer, Adrian Ernest Bayley, had been on parole and sought yet another victim. He was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 35-year non-parole period. In this instance, some people asked if Australia should bring back the death penalty for repeated offenders or serial killers.

The other high-profile murder happened two months later and centred on Sarah Cafferkey, who was murdered by someone she knew – after a row over drugs in his house at Bacchus Marsh in outer Melbourne. The killer, Steven James Hird, who had killed before and served time in jail, had stabbed the victim 19 times before stuffing her in a dustbin and covering it with cement. The court sentenced him to life imprisonment without parole. “Was that enough?” some concerned citizens have questioned again.

Looking back to 2011, the Herald Sun reported that Victorian Liberal MP Bernie Finn called for the return of the death penalty, especially for drug kingpins. He received a backlash. Opponents of the death penalty said the re-introduction of capital punishment would make Australia a pariah in the eyes of the world. However, Finn found support in Crime Victims Support Association president Noel McNamara, who said: “I think the death penalty should be brought back for anyone who takes a life or causes a (loss of) life like happens with drug traffickers. Of course, there’s nothing like permanent rehabilitation on the end of a rope.”

But Melburnian mother of two girls Ms M Go, who grew up in Indonesia, disagreed. She said: “I don’t believe in capital punishment. You cannot bring back the victims, who died. Instead of capital punishment, they should be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. They are the product of parents and society and were not corrected at home and in school. The Bible also said to offer the other cheek and not hit back.”

Ferntree Gully’s Debra Weston, a working mother of three girls, is not comfortable with the death penalty: “Basically, I would like to say ‘yes, bring it back’ – but mistakes can be made. People may be framed or wrongly convicted.”

On the other hand, Wellington Village newsagent Isaac Awat, a Catholic from Iraq, felt strongly about the weak sentencing of hardcore criminals. He said: “Australia should bring back the death penalty for the dangerous people, like those who killed Jillian Meagher and Sarah Cafferkey.”

Basically, there are two schools of thought for and against enforcing the death penalty. In between, there are some who believe that the death penalty still has a purpose as a strong deterrent to serious crime, such as repeat, multiple or serial killers. Under their plan, the condemned would be held on Death Row for a few years until all avenues of appeal are exhausted. This ‘middle’ group believes even a life sentence without parole would be a drain on taxpayers’ funds. More importantly, these high-risk killers have nothing to lose by attempting a jail break and even kill again if they escape.

For the moment, the jury is out on the relevance of the death penalty and in some countries the noose still dangles on the gallows – perhaps even gathering dust. Make no mistake about it, this problem will fester and not go away for a long time!

P. Francis is an English tutor in Melbourne, who has more than 20 years’ journalism experience with newspapers, books and magazines in Singapore and Australia.