Malaysia should abolish the death penalty once and for all – The Diplomat

In January, Malaysian Justice Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the cabinet would discuss the findings of a study on alternatives to the mandatory death penalty, which applies to crimes such as drug trafficking, betrayal and murder.

After almost two years of no progress on death penalty reform, this is a welcome development.

For more than 40 years, Amnesty International has campaigned against the death penalty around the world and more than two-thirds of countries have abolished it in law or in practice. Here’s why Malaysia – and other countries that retain the death penalty – should show leadership on human rights and set an example by abolishing it once and for all.

Simply put, governments shouldn’t kill people. Or, as the UN Human Rights Committee put it, “the death penalty cannot be reconciled with full respect for the right to life.”

Every human being has the inherent right to life and governments have an obligation to protect lives, not take them. This right is recognized by international law for all human beings, without distinction of any kind, including those suspected or convicted of even the most serious crimes.

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Amnesty International and many other people and organizations around the world believe that the death penalty violates this right.

In Malaysia, we have seen numerous violations of the right to a fair trial. Defendants who cannot afford or are unable to hire their own lawyers are often unrepresented during police questioning and lack interpretation if they do not speak Bahasa Malay, despite credible allegations torture and other ill-treatment at the hands of the authorities, among other examples.

The imposition of the death penalty after a violation of the right to a fair trial is a violation of the right to life. There is no perfect criminal justice system and mistakes can always happen. The irreversibility of the death penalty leaves no room for redress if an innocent person is wrongfully convicted and executed.

The death penalty is also discriminatory. The greater the disadvantage, the greater the risk of being sentenced to death. Our research found that the burden of the death penalty in Malaysia falls largely on those convicted of drug trafficking, which disproportionately includes women and foreign nationals.

In September 2021, 67% of those on death row were there for drug-related offences, some for carrying as little as 15 grams of opioids. A majority of those on death row are also from lower socio-economic backgrounds, while ethnic minorities are overrepresented among those on death row.

These findings take on even greater significance when examined in the context of laws and policies that contravene international law and standards: for example, the lack of access to interpretation at the point of arrest for foreign nationals, or the inability to use coercion or other mitigating measures considered in sentencing, due to the mandatory death penalty.

The application of the death penalty can also be arbitrary, particularly for people whose nationality, gender, socio-economic background or other characteristics may contribute to, or make them more vulnerable to, being sentenced to death.

What about the argument that the death penalty acts as a unique deterrent against crime?

This has never been backed up by evidence. For example, a study comparing murder rates in Hong Kong and Singapore, both of similar size and population, over a 35-year period beginning in 1973 found that the abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong and Singapore’s high execution rate in the mid-1990s had little impact on murder rates.

It is high time that the authorities focus their resources on tackling the root causes of crime and developing more effective long-term solutions. The death penalty does not make us safer. Furthermore, we believe that those found responsible for criminal acts deserve a second chance.

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These beliefs are becoming common. To date, 144 countries – more than two-thirds of the nations of the world – have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice. In the Asia-Pacific region, more than 20 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with Papua New Guinea becoming the latest in January this year.

In 2020, six countries in Asia-Pacific carried out executions, the lowest since Amnesty International began keeping records. Despite voting at the UN General Assembly in 2018 and 2020 in favor of two resolutions calling on all countries to institute a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty, Malaysia is still among a minority increasingly isolated from countries that still practice the death penalty.

Given that it recently took its seat on the UN Human Rights Council, by abolishing the death penalty, Malaysia can catch up with the global trend, improve its human rights record rights and send a strong signal to other countries in ASEAN and the region that changing the death penalty is not only possible, but necessary to protect human rights.

We call on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and his cabinet to do the right thing and abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

About Norman Griggs

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