Asian countries urged to abolish death penalty

More than 300 lawyers, NGO workers, journalists, state officials, academics, activists, and others from around the globe met to encourage efforts to end the principle of ‘an eye for an eye’ in justice systems by abolishing the use of capital punishment in Asia and elsewhere.   

Together against the Death Penalty (Ensemble contre la peine de mort - ECPM), an NGO based in France which campaigns for the abolition of the death penalty, and other partner organisations and state agencies, such as the Anti-Death Penalty Asian Network (ADPAN) and the Norwegian Foreign Affairs Ministry, organised the Asian Regional Congress on the Death Penalty on 11-12 June 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

At the opening of the event on Thursday morning, NGOs and experts on the abolition of capital punishment from around the globe argued that the application of death penalty is a violation of the most fundamental human right, the right to life. It violates both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

About 300 lawyers, NGO workers, journalists, state officials, academics, and activists joined the opening of the Asian Regional Congress on the Death Penalty on 11-12 June 2015 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia 

One of the speakers at the opening ceremony, Chow Ying Ngeow of the Executive Committee of ADPAN, pointed out that at present although more than 70 per cent of countries around the world have abolished the death penalty, many Asian countries, including China, Singapore, Vietnam, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and even Japan still use the death penalty for serious crimes such as terrorism, murder, and drug trafficking.

Raphael Chenuil Hazan, the Executive Director of ECPM, said that two third of executions documented annually worldwide happen in Asia. He added that in Southeast Asia, suspects convicted of drug trafficking constituted more than 50 per cent of those receiving death sentences in the region.

Earlier this year, the most populous ASEAN nation, Indonesia, executed 14 people, most of whom were foreigners convicted of narcotics related cases.

Julian McMahon, an Australian lawyer who represented two young Australian suspects, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the notorious Bali Nine, a drug trafficking case that rocked Indonesian-Australian relations, said that his clients and many others in the same situation should have been allowed a second chance.

“Both of them had reformed in prison,” McMahon said about the rehabilitation process of his former clients. “Myuran was selling his paintings to help other inmates in prison to raise money for [medical] operations.”

McMahon added that another victim from Brazil who was recently executed in Indonesia, Rodrigo Gularte, was in fact suffering from mental illness. If new evidence of his crime found after his execution had been found earlier, Rodrigo would have been reprieved from being killed by the firing squad.  

When asked at the press conference if the abolition of death penalty is a form of cultural imperialism from the west, Macmahon said that in fact in the last couple of years the Indonesian government has been doing whatever it can to assist its citizens facing death sentences in other countries.

Posters at the event calling for the abolition of the death penalty        

“For me the application of the death penalty is a political move to divert public attention away from something more important” McMahon said, criticising Indonesian President Joko Widodo’s war on drugs policy.

At the discussion on unfair trials, Leon Chih-hau Huang, a lawyer from Taiwan who has represented many convicts on death row, pointed out that people tend to be biased towards those who are pleasing to their eyes and play favourites without noticing it. Therefore, fair trials can sometimes be difficult to conduct.    

Using the allegory from the famous novel ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Huang asked “what if you can tell the mockingbird from the bluejay (in the story the former symbolises the innocent and the latter, the guilty,).”

According to Saul Lehrfreund, a British attorney and Co-Executive Director of the Death Penalty Project in the UK, justice systems that might convict innocent people for crimes they did not commit persist everywhere.   

“The risk that innocent people end up being killed will never be totally eliminated because there can never be a perfect trial,” said Lehrfreund.

To illustrate this, Lehrfreund pointed to the case of Sean Hodgson, a British man who was wrongfully convicted of murdering a 22-year-old woman in 1979 and was imprisoned for 27 years.

Chow Ying Ngeow told Prachatai that in reality, people who were arrested in cases related to drug trafficking and sentenced to death were mostly small people who did not know much about the heavy penalties for drug trafficking cases.

“It’s the small people who are being caught, but the big guys involved always manage to get away, so the death penalty can never be effective in eradicating drug trafficking,” said Chow Ying.

On the fallacy of the legal system, she concluded that one person wrongfully convicted to death sentence is more than enough of a reason to abolish the death penalty.