Death penalty has no place in modern legal system

Razali Ismail


LETTER | The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) is disappointed by the government’s decision to abolish the mandatory death penalty only rather than a total abolition of the death penalty across all laws as originally announced following a cabinet meeting in October and during the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva last year.

Although a good first step, a discretionary death penalty is still a barrier in the upholding of human dignity and the right to life.

Suhakam is of the view that the death penalty is not an effective nor even the best crime prevention mechanism within the system of justice. There is no credible evidence that the death penalty deters crime more effectively than a prison term.

Furthermore, no justice system throughout the world is fool-proof. There always remains the possibility that an innocent person is on death row due to any number of reasons, which range from an inadequate defence to a misapplication of forensic science.

The Innocence Project in the US has exonerated 364 death row inmates alone through DNA evidence over 25 years. How many people in Malaysia would be freed from death row if something similar were applied here? Capital punishment is irreversible. Once someone has been executed, there exists no way to remedy their death in the event of a miscarriage of justice.

As of October 2018, 1,279 people were on death row in Malaysia, about three percent of the prison population of about 60,000 people. The majority of death row inmates are incarcerated on drugs offences. Thirty-five executions took place from 2007 to 2017.

Advocacy group Harm Reduction International lists Malaysia among six countries with a "high" rate of applying the death penalty in drugs cases, the others being China, Iran, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. However, according to a United Nations resolution of the Economic and Security Council in 1984, capital punishment may be imposed for only the most serious crimes, which excludes drugs offences.

Today, 106 countries have abolished the death penalty in recognition that it is cruel and inhumane, and that it does not rehabilitate criminals nor address root causes within society which may lead to the enactment of serious crimes.

Suhakam would like to reiterate its position that the death penalty has no place in a modern legal system as it violates the right to life which happens to be the most basic of all “human rights for all”.

Malaysia is a country that respects the sanctity of life and the right to life is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution.

We, therefore, urge the government to take concurrent steps towards total abolition of the death penalty and move towards ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT).

More engagement is also required by the government and relevant stakeholders with civil society in order to address key areas of opposition to the abolishment of the death penalty and other punishments deemed to be cruel and unusual in order to uphold international human rights standards.

RAZALI ISMAIL is chairperson of Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam).

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