Originally published in The Times, 2nd November 2018 (Read online)
Recent moves to end capital punishment show that change is possible even in the strictest countries
By Saul Lehrfreund, Co-Executive Director of The Death Penalty Project
Malaysia’s cabinet has recently made clear its intention to table a bill abolishing the death penalty.
If passed, Malaysia will join most of the world’s nations that have rejected capital punishment. The announcement is a dramatic change of policy given that it was one of only 23 countries that carried out executions last year and is where the death penalty is automatically imposed on conviction for murder, treason and certain drug trafficking and firearms offences.
The potential human impact of this decision is staggering. The death row population now numbers more than 1,250 and nearly half are understood to be foreigners.
The Death Penalty Project has worked with local lawyers for more than a decade to provide pro bono legal assistance to those under sentence of death. From our work we know that most of the condemned are low-level drug couriers, whose disadvantaged backgrounds and marginalised identities render them vulnerable to exploitation by trafficking gangs, unfair treatment in court and neglect in prison.
Samantha Jones, a British woman being held in Malaysia for murdering her husband, was arrested a week after the government’s announcement. Previously, if convicted her fate would have been mandatory death.
The decision could have a huge impact in the region where the death penalty is particularly entrenched: neighbouring Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam and Thailand have all executed in the past three years. And advocates from nearby jurisdictions have already begun to call for those countries to follow Malaysia’s example.
The announcement is also important because it teaches us that the key to abolition is political leadership, most effectively exercised through full and frank public recognition of the inhumane realities of capital punishment, from the lack of special deterrent effect and the inevitability of error, to the horrors of death row and execution.
While public opinion is often cited as a reason not to abolish, empirical research shows that increased awareness of the realities of capital punishment diminishes support for the practice. Moreover, the experience internationally is that after abolition public support for capital punishment dwindles as the punishment comes to be regarded as outdated and barbaric.
Many countries that retain the death penalty, including some that are actively executing, maintain that they are working towards abolition. However, far too often they make vague promises without explaining how, when and, importantly, why they must progress towards abolition. It is unsurprising then that many of them have stagnated in their progress or have even taken steps backwards.
The benefits of transparency and openness are evident in Malaysia. The government’s willingness to be honest about the death penalty bodes well for the country making good on its promise.
We look forward to Malaysia joining three quarters of the world’s nations who have rejected the death penalty in recognition that it is a gross human rights violation.
Saul Lehrfreund is co-executive director of The Death Penalty Project, a charity based at the London law firm Simons Muirhead and Burton. The project has published the resource Sentencing in Capital Cases by Joe Middleton and Amanda Clift-Matthews, with Edward Fitzgerald QC, in association with Doughty Street Chambers in London