Our neighbours kill captives. What’s the way forward?
Australian Dominic Bird from Perth is likely to face a death penalty trial in Malaysia in December on drug charges. Meanwhile, Melbourne nurse Emma Louise L’Aiguille is also being held in a Malaysian women’s prison on similar charges, following her arrest on 17 July.
Fellow Australians facing execution in Bali, Myuran Sukumuran and Andrew Chan, have lodged their final appeal for clemency to the Indonesian President. These cases have refocused Australia’s attention on capital punishment across the Asia Pacific.
While there is a strong trend towards abolishing the death penalty in the region, a few of our neighbours continue to apply the ultimate inhumane punishment.
Antiquated and out of touch are hardly words that come to mind when thinking of Japan, one of the most technologically advanced and developed countries in the region, if not the world. And yet the Government has proved itself not only outdated, but cruel, in resuming the archaic practice of state-sanctioned execution.
In 2011 Japan raised hopes that it was moving away from the death penalty when it made it through the year without carrying out a single execution, in spite of the harrowing 131 people that remain on death row.
Just late last month, however, two death row inmates were hanged, including the first woman to be executed in more than 15 years – bringing the total number of executions in the country this year to seven people.
Executions are mostly carried out in secret and families are only notified after the execution has taken place. As well as this devastating practice, prisoners on death row are subjected to an extremely cruel practice of never knowing if, or when, they will be put to death, leading to enormous anxiety and mental stress.
They are forced to await execution every day, facing a sentence that could be enforced at only a few hours notice, tipping many into insanity.
Each day could be their last and the arrival of a prison officer with a death warrant would signal their execution within hours.
The fact that only a handful of countries in the Asia-Pacific carried out executions last year is an encouraging sign that governments in our region are questioning the legitimacy of this degrading and irreversible punishment.
In July this year, Singapore moved towards ending the mandatory death sentencing for drug trafficking and homicide cases, and placed a moratorium on executions until proposed changes in the law are enacted.
This is a significant and remarkable move and follows years of campaigning from anti-death penalty lawyers and activists in Singapore. No easy feat, and one that was unthinkable as recently as 2005 when Australian, Van Tuong Nguyen, was executed by hanging in Changi prison.
For the third year running, Indonesia also recorded no executions in 2011, although there are estimated to be over 100 on death row, including Sukumuran and Chan.
A special task force has reportedly been created to look at the situation of Indonesian nationals facing the death penalty in other countries. The Manpower and Transmigration Minister, Muhaimin Iskandar, has said the government has sought clemency on behalf of Indonesian nationals on death row abroad.
Around much of the Asia Pacific, the trend is the same, with no recorded executions last year in Brunei Darussalam, India, Laos, Maldives, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, South Korea, Sri Lanka or Thailand.
The issue of state executions was also debated at the national level in Malaysia, South Korea and Taiwan.
While still accounting for the majority of the world’s executions, in 2011 the Chinese authorities continued to shroud the country’s use of the death penalty in secrecy.
State-owned media coverage of several high profile cases sparked intense discussion within China, however in the absence of published official statistics, this occurred without the facts needed to inform the debate.
Contrast with the Pacific, which remained a death penalty-free area in 2011, with the exception of five death sentences in Papua New Guinea.
Increasingly, governments are recognising that the death penalty represents the greatest violation of all human rights – the right to life – and that it does not provide for any protection against crime.
The death penalty is irrevocable and, when coupled with a justice system that is prone to human error and prejudice, the risk of executing an innocent person looms large.
Japan’s resumption of executions is a retrograde step that runs counter to universal protection of human rights, and against the Asia-Pacific trend of abolition of the death penalty, but it is not unrealistic to aim for complete abolition of the death penalty in Asia.
Australia as a regional partner has a strong role to play and must take a principled and consistent approach to the abolition of the death penalty, regardless of the nationality of those facing execution, or their crime.
The death penalty remains the ultimate denial of human rights whether it is imposed for drug trafficking, murder or terrorism.
Ten years ago it was unthinkable that the death penalty would even be debated, let alone abolished in some countries in the Asia-Pacific. It is now conceivable that in the next ten years, this may well be realised across the entire region.
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