COMMENT | Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) welcomes the fact that the government has amended the Bill to amend Section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, which now provides for the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking. The Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2017, as amended, was passed after the third reading on Nov 30 at the Dewan Rakyat.
This amending Bill has been amended to remove the earlier precondition of a Public Prosecutor’s written certification of assistance before judges had the discretion in sentencing, that will allow the imposition of the life imprisonment sentence instead of the death penalty. This amendment vide Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill - Amendment in Committee (D.R.45/2017) amended the Bill entitled the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2017.
After the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Act 2017, a number of groups and persons including Madpet expressed dissatisfaction that judges, according to Section 2 of the original amendment Bill, would only be able to exercise discretion during sentencing if and only when the "Public Prosecutor certifies in writing to the court, that in his determination, the person convicted has assisted an enforcement agency in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Malaysia".
On Nov 30, the need for the public prosecutor's certification was removed. The words “the Public Prosecutor certifies in writing to the court that in his determination” was removed and replaced with the word “that”.
This would mean that one of the points that the judge now must consider before sentencing is passed is that "the person convicted has assisted an enforcement agency in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Malaysia".
Whilst this is better, there still remains the concern whether persons convicted would really be able to provide such assistance, and when will such assistance be required to be provided.
Rightly, that assistance should be provided only after one has been tried and convicted. To suggest otherwise would be most prejudicial to the accused person, and it may be seen as forcing accused persons into doing things that are self-incriminatory, including statements that will assist the prosecution to get a conviction in the face of a threat of being sentenced and put to death.
This is most unacceptable especially in capital cases, where if one is convicted, it may result in the imposition of the death sentence.
We know that many a time, drug trafficking is usually carried out by kingpins and their criminal organisations, and as such, there is also a real risk that any such "assistance" by the convicted person may bring to them and/or their families retaliation and/or harm, more so when the fact of this assistance is made known.
As such, Malaysia must develop a substantive witness protection scheme that will ensure the safety of the convicted as well as their families, if need be.
The other concern is the fact that some of the convicted may have very little information, not sufficient to have "assisted an enforcement agency in disrupting drug trafficking activities within or outside Malaysia", noting that the words used on the face of it indicate assistance was given "...has assisted...".
One can only provide assistance as much as one is able to, and it may sometimes be seen as not being useful or sufficient to assist any enforcement agency. As such, what is expected to escape the death sentence may still be unreasonable.
It may have been better, if all that is required was what a person reasonably could have done to assist, irrespective of whether it really assisted the enforcement agency or not. Until there is an amendment, it is hoped that when judges do consider this element of "assistance", reasonableness and reality is also considered.
Also, it was also disappointing to note that the new amendments to the Bill did not address the concern as to what will happen to the 800 or more still on death row for drug trafficking. It was best that all their sentences be forthwith commuted to imprisonment.
If and when this amendment comes into force, it will apply also to cases where the trial had started but the accused has not yet been convicted.
There are serious concerns about trials that are already started. Evidence will have been adduced, challenged and/or rebutted in these trials where both the accused and prosecution were operating under the belief that on conviction, there will only be the mandatory death penalty.
As such, even when the amendment comes into force, it will only be just if there be a new trial before a new judge, given the fact that the strategy and conduct of the trial would most likely be very different given the fact judges would now, after the amendment comes into force, the discretion to not sentence the convicted to death.
In light of the upcoming amendment to Section 39B, Madpet calls for the immediate stop of all Section 39B trials pending the coming into force the amendment that gives judges the discretion to impose a sentence other than the death sentence. There should be new trials before different judges for all these cases.
It was also revealed by Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Azalina Othman Said, that prison department statistics revealed that from 2000 until 2017, of 113 persons were sentenced to death under Section 39B, only 11 were executed, whilst another 122 persons have been pardoned and had their death sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
There was, however, no disclosure as to why some were executed and others had their sentences commuted. Did diplomatic concerns or other unacceptable considerations have a part to play in these decisions as to who lives and who is hanged to death?
Madpet urges that the death sentence of all persons on death row, especially for drug trafficking, be immediately commuted to imprisonment.
Death penalty is not a deterrent
The minister also stated that the police statistics reveal an increase of drug cases every year despite the drastic measures taken by the police, which we could take as including the fact of the existence of the mandatory death penalty for Section 39B.
Since January 2014 until October 2017, 702,319 individuals have been arrested by the police for the offence of trafficking and possession of drugs.
A total of 21,731 persons were arrested under Section 39B, whereby investigation papers were opened for 13,036 persons and 10,878 persons were charged in court. The minister also revealed that 68 drug kingpins were arrested during this period, while 106 illegal laboratories were raided, resulting in the arrest of 409.
The death penalty for drug trafficking came into being in 1975, and in 1983, there was an amendment that brought in the mandatory death penalty. It is clear now that even the mandatory death penalty has not deterred people from committing the offence. On the contrary, there has been an increase of persons committing the crime.
As such, merely giving the judges the option of handing out the death sentence or life imprisonment (with at least 15 strokes of the whip) needs to be reviewed. Severe punishment does not serve as a deterrent, and as such, we should be looking at rehabilitation and second chances to persons convicted of even the crime of drug trafficking.
Our concerns should be rehabilitation, and it is certainly most unjust to be sentencing a first time offender or a young person to life imprisonment.
Madpet would suggest that Section 39B should be further amended setting a minimum sentence of 5 to 10 years, as this will be more just. Judges will then have discretion to impose the appropriate sentence depending on the facts and circumstances of each case.
Malaysia also needs to look at the reasons why people commit this mandatory death penalty crime. One of the main causes may be poverty. Hence, the way forward in reducing the crime of drug trafficking (or other crimes driven by poverty) may be addressing the socio-economic conditions that drive people to be willing to risk their life and liberty for monies.
Madpet also urges that all persons arrested for drug offences be accorded the right to a fair trial and that detention without trial laws like the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca) and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985 not be used.
Madpet also would like to remind the Malaysian government that they are looking at abolishing the death penalty, especially the mandatory death penalty, for all crimes, not just drug trafficking. Whilst we welcome this move to abolish the mandatory death penalty for Section 39B, we urge that the abolition of the mandatory death penalty is expedited.
Madpet reiterates its call for the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia, and for the imposition of an immediate moratorium on all executions pending abolition.
The views expressed here are those of the authors/contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.