Malaysia sets example by abandoning the noose

Now it has a moral right to pressure other nations to follow suit in ending capital punishment

Luke Hunt

Updated: November 05, 2018 05:11 AM GMT

A grim message of Malaysia's mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking adorns the perimeter wall of the historic Pudu Jail in Kuala Lumpur in this 2007 file photo. Malaysia recently announced that it is to abolish the death penalty. (Photo by Tengku Bahar/AFP)

Malaysia's decision to abandon the death penalty is winning praise and adds further momentum to a growing global trend that human rights advocates hope will spell an end to state-sanctioned killing.

But there's still a long way to go, particularly across Asia.

From Pakistan and India to Japan, Indonesia and Vietnam, executions for a range of crimes — murder and treason to drug trafficking and blasphemy — remain on the statute books. 

Of the 53 counties that maintain the death penalty, about a quarter are in Asia, with China topping the world in the number of state-sanctioned killings. Figures remain a state secret, but rights groups say at least 2,000 people were executed by lethal injection or firing squad in 2017.

That's more than the rest of the world combined, but Beijing's methods pale when compared to North Korea where torture often precedes public executions.

The number of executions is also a state secret in the despotic communist state that is estimated to carry out 50-100 executions a year — by firing squad, hanging or decapitation — for crimes that include attempts to access unapproved media.

Pushing the Chinese and North Koreans into abandoning the death penalty might seem like a lost cause. But Malaysia has announced that by the end of this year it will become the 107th country to end capital punishment, a significant increase on 64 nations just two decades ago.

Some other Asian countries have also jettisoned the death penalty while several others have curbed its use or imposed moratoriums.

It was abolished in Cambodia in 1989 amid peace negotiations aimed at ending three decades of conflict amid fears that state-sanctioned executions could be used for retribution.

East Timor abandoned the death penalty, which it inherited from Indonesia, following a 1999 United Nations-sponsored vote on self-determination. The Philippines suspended the death penalty in 2006, Mongolia abolished it in 2017 and there is a moratorium on executions in South Korea.

Vietnam executed 1,134 people between mid-2011 and mid-2016, but the number of people currently on death row is not known. Thailand carried out its last execution in June, the first in nearly a decade.

Brunei retains the death penalty, but it has not been carried out since 1957, likewise in Laos, where the last known execution was in 1989, and in Papua New Guinea where there has not been a hanging since 1954.


Singapore ignores pleas

Malaysia announced its decision to end judicial killing on Oct. 10, the World Day Against the Death Penalty, saying the practice was inconsistent with national sentiment.

That begs the question as to why Singapore has not followed suit, as its population is at least as civilized as those across the causeway border.

The case of Singapore, like Japan and Taiwan, is disturbing because it ranks very high on the Human Development Index and lays claim to be part of the first world where capital punishment has mostly long been spurned. The United States is a notable exception.

But the island state, famed for its squeaky-clean streets, had no hesitation in hanging Malaysian drug trafficker Prabu Pathmanathan in late October, ignoring pleas for clemency in what was branded an unlawful and brutal act.

In some countries, such as Pakistan, zealots claim religious justifications for the death penalty. In the Muslim-majority nation there were 65 hangings in 2017 and a total of 499 since it ended a moratorium in 2014.

Yet neighboring India has executed only five people since 1995, the last being in 2015 in relation to 1993 terrorist bombings.

President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, where there have been up to 20,000 extrajudicial drug war killings since he come to power in mid-2016, has indicated that the nation's suspension of official executions could be lifted.

In Myanmar — where all death sentences were commuted in 2014 — 66 people have been sentenced to death since Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi won historic elections less than three years ago.


Religious excuses

While it is impossible to conduct a global survey, evidence suggests that most people in a majority of countries believe that the death penalty is wrong, with this view particularly strong among Christians.

There is little stomach for the Old Testament concept of an eye for an eye, even in Israel where capital punishment is law, yet only two executions have been carried out since it was founded in 1948; the last in 1962.

In countries where a strict form of Shariah is imposed, Islam is used to justify executions — which can include beheadings and stoning — primarily for intentional murder and Fasad fil-ardh, which means the spreading of mischief in the land.

Such attempted justifications are problematic in the 21st century with cultures clashing as much as the old with the new. Intentional murder convictions grant victims' families the right to judge the severity of sentences, undermining the power of the courts and their independence.

Meanwhile, the stated offense of trying to destabilise the state is open to interpretation and the whims of those in power. Saudi Arabia's treatment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi is an example.

There is no shortage of people who believe criminals should forfeit their lives for heinous crimes.

But sovereign states have too often condemned the wrong people and ignored their own laws when sanctioning the deaths of people who were mentally incapable of understanding what they had done.

Brazilian drug trafficker Rodrigo Gularte was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic with psychotic tendencies. Yet he was executed by firing squad in Indonesia for drug trafficking three years ago despite his illness and lack of comprehension.

Father Charlie Burrows, an Irish Catholic priest who ministers to condemned prisoners, for three days tried in vain to explain to Gularte that he was soon to die. Father Burrows described Gularte as a quiet and sensitive man who finally understood.


Why should state-sanctioned killing be a state right?

Police and judicial systems are far from infallible as found in the United States where at least 20 people sentenced to death have been exonerated since the introduction of DNA testing.

And the steadfastness of the law is only highlighted publicly when death row inmates become politicized and cause diplomatic friction, such as with condemned foreigners like Prabu Pathmanathan.

There are 81 Nigerians on death row in Malaysia, but they are now to be spared. Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, whose government is abolishing the death penalty, was accused at the time of politically exploiting the 1986 hangings of British and Australian drug traffickers Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers.

The hanging in Singapore in 2005 of Van Nguyen, an Australian Vietnamese who was allegedly blackmailed into a narcotics ring to protect his troubled brother, was revolting. He turned state evidence amid promises this would go in his favor. It did not.

Such treatment is barbaric, particularly when meted out in narcotics cases where drug mules and other bit-players of syndicates are condemned while those in charge carry on with relative impunity from their home countries.

Great inroads have been made towards ridding the world of the death penalty and, in the meantime, curbing its use.

Malaysia, by announcing the scrapping of capital punishment, will be able to join other nations conforming to international norms in order to pressure those that don't, even China and North Korea.

In his last moments, as executioners strapped him to a post to be shot, Gularte turned to Father Burrows as the prospect of what was about to happen sank in.

This is not right. I made one small mistake, and I shouldn't have to die for it, Gularte said.

Luke Hunt is the opinion editor for

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