Comment: Changing attitudes to the death penalty in Southeast Asia
Yet there are hundreds of men and women on death row in southeast Asia. The lawyers and groups supporting death row prisoners are often stretched and under-resourced.
But increasingly, laws and attitudes regarding the death penalty in our region are changing.
Just seven years ago Singapore executed Australian man Van Nyugen under the country’s harsh drug laws. Ten years ago Singapore had enjoyed the dubious distinction of carrying out the most executions per capita of any country in the world. But things are changing. Late last year, the law changed to allow discretion for judges to impose a life sentence. Previously, a guilty verdict, barring a granting of clemency by the president, meant the death penalty was the only sentencing option.
Last week, it was reported that a Malaysian prisoner in Singapore with a murder conviction escaped the death penalty, having his sentence commuted to life imprisonment, following a relaxation of sentencing laws in Parliament.
Fabian Adiu Edwin, 23, had his low IQ and youth taken into account by Singapore’s High Court.
The news was welcomed by death penalty abolitionists and human rights lawyers.
Julian McMahon, part of the legal team who represented Van Nyugen in his capital trial, praised moves by Singapore away from a hardline approach. He wrote on ABC’s The Drum, “Singapore, which prides itself on being both conservative and modern, has perhaps been embarrassed by the rigidity of its criminal law regime, parts of which belong to a long bygone era.
“Allowing judges to actually judge and sentence serious drug cases on a case by case basis is a necessary and long overdue step, but most welcomed by the international community.”
As Australian man Dominic Bird faces a Malaysian court on July 24, on drug charges that attract the death penalty, there are some signs that Malaysians are moving away from support for current laws.
Last week it was reported that a survey of 1,535 Malaysians showed little support for the mandatory implementation of the death penalty – particularly for drugs offences.
Instead there was support for discretionary use of the death penalty.
Members of the Malaysian Bar have been strongly outspoken in their opposition to the death penalty, and leading advocates take on death penalty cases pro bono.
A human rights’ activist in Malaysia last year told me: “The Malaysian Bar Council in 2011 carried a unanimous motion against the death penalty.”
But convincing the public is a more difficult proposition. “There is a big drug problem in Malaysia and very little rehabilitation centres,” she said. The death penalty works as a powerful deterrent, goes the accepted thinking.
But she thought the government might be swayed “to get rid of the death penalty if the public want it abolished.”
Indonesia is a powerful “key domino” in the region when it comes to influencing the death penalty abolition of its neighbours, Dr Dave McCrae of the Lowy Institute wrote last year.
In an analysis published in March 2012 McCrae wrote that “Indonesia remains at a crossroads concerning capital punishment, with competing forces advocating for greater use of the death penalty and for its abolition.”
“Whether or not Indonesia abolishes the death penalty matters to Australia for principled and practical reasons.”
Last year Indonesia, which has more than a hundred people on death row, made what many Indonesia watchers saw as positive moves towards abolition.
When a 54-year-old Indonesian maid working in Saudi Arabia was beheaded after being convicted of killing her employer, the Indonesian public and government were outraged. The execution provoked a diplomatic incident. Indonesia recalled its consular staff, and the issue was hotly debated in the nation’s media.
In the aftermath, Indonesia reached out to its citizens on death row around the world, providing legal assistance and establishing a taskforce to protect the approximately 200 Indonesians facing the death penalty overseas.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia, clemency was granted to four prisoners on death row, convicted of drug offences. But a public backlash by some Indonesians against this softening led, this year, to a return to executions after a four-year moratorium.
In March 2013, Adami Wilson, a Malawi national convicted of drug smuggling, was executed by firing squad. The execution of three others followed.
The Indonesian government announced there is a list of around 10 people that they plan to execute this year. It is not known if Australian’s Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran are on that list. They face a nervous wait in Kerobokan prison for news of their clemency application, which has been lodged with Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Thailand does not have a mandatory death sentence for any offence, but capital sentences are imposed frequently with 706 people on death row in Thailand as of late May 2013. Around half of these are for drug offences.
Reprieve Australia sent a research team to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand in 2012 to report on capital punishment regimes in those countries and on resources and public appetite for abolition.
They found in Thailand that “currently, men condemned to death are permanently shackled by what is politically described as ‘instruments of restraint’.
“These shackles are welded on to the ankles and are not removed, even during illness.”
In a move welcomed by human rights activists, in May this year leg irons were deemed ‘unnecessarily cruel’ by the Thai Corrections Department, and their use was banned.
Apart from overturning practices relating to shackling, legal reform in Thailand has been slow.
At a seminar late last year in Thailand, human rights activists and experts said the country was “falling behind its neighbours” in southeast Asia when it came to the abolition of the death penalty.
The Philippines abolished the death penalty in 2006 and Cambodia has no death penalty under its constitution.
Pol Colonel Aeknarat Sawettanand, director-general of the Department of Rights and Liberty Protection told the seminar that “many Thais are still in the mindset of revenge and retribution, which poses a hurdle in trying to convince them that it is against human rights standards to retain the death penalty.”
Roseann Rife, deputy director of Amnesty International's Asia Pacific program, said Thailand needs to "move swiftly and decisively" to end the death penalty. She said “public opinion was rarely in favour of abolishing the death penalty until abolition is passed into law. So, it was necessary for activists and the government to take the lead.”
Aeknarat called on the Thai Parliament to show leadership in implementing reforms and abolishing the death penalty.
Last month Vietnam announced it would begin to kill death row prisoners by lethal injection.
Previously prisoners were executed by firing squad due to the unavailability of poisons in Vietnam needed to make the mixture for lethal injection. The EU had refused to export chemicals to Vietnam that would be used in executions.
This has led to a backlog of prisoners awaiting execution as the use of firing squads had been phased out. However once Vietnam started manufacturing its own poisons, the Minister of Public Security Tran Dai Quang had announced that the implementation of the death penalty by lethal injection would start from June 27.
There are more than 560 prisoners under death penalty and 170 people are eligible for lethal injection.
The New York Times reported that Amnesty International activists working in Vietnam had hoped EU moratorium on manufacturing the drugs would lead to abolition of the death penalty. Yet sentences of death for mostly drug and murder offences continued. In 2012, Amnesty International reported that at least 86 people were sentenced to death.
One of those facing the death penalty is an American citizen who was caught last month allegedly attempting to smuggle more than a kilogram of heroin to Sydney, via Vietnam.
Local media reported this week that despite Vietnam starting to manufacture its own lethal injection drugs, and rights’ groups anticipating a ‘mass killing’, no prisoners have been executed yet.
Cao Ngoc Oanh, director of the central police department in charge of managing nationwide prisons, told the media on June 26 that “we are not ready to carry out with lethal injections.” Any further information was “classified.”
According to reports in the Vietnamese media, death row prisoners are suffering considerable mental anguish due to uncertainty about their fate.
‘“Many prisoners have been waiting to be executed for five to six years,” said lawmaker Nguyen Van Hien, adding that many prisoners have been begging to be executed.’
Brigid Delaney is a freelance journalist. She has worked as a lawyer and currently volunteers for Reprieve. She is also the co-founder of the Mercy Campaign, which is campaigning for clemency in the cases of Australians on death row - Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan. - World News Australia, 24/7/2013, Changing attitudes to the death penalty in Southeast Asia