On the occasion of the 2017 World Day Against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International is calling on the Government and Parliament of Malaysia to swiftly move to reform the country’s laws to fully abolish the mandatory death penalty for all crimes and establish a moratorium on all executions as a first steps towards full abolition of this punishment.
In March 2017 the government of Malaysia tasked the Attorney General with the preparation of amendments to the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1952. The de facto Minister of Law Azalina Othman Said indicated last July that the cabinet was due to consider draft legislation to this effect in early August, before introducing it for Parliament’s consideration. The announcement of such reforms was first made in 2012.
Malaysia continues to apply mandatory death sentences for certain crimes, including murder, drug trafficking and some firearms offences. Such sentences violate international law, since they do not allow judges to take into account the mitigating circumstances of the crime or of the offenders.
“So far the Government’s statements on reforms to the mandatory death penalty have been delayed promises. While over a thousand people are on death row and executions continuing, it is imperative that the authorities do not make the next Parliamentary session another missed opportunity for reform. It is high time for action – Malaysia must abolish the mandatory death penalty, for all crimes, as a first step,” said Gwen Lee, Acting Executive Director of Amnesty international Malaysia.
Amnesty International welcomed the decision in March 2017 to allow judges discretion in sentencing in drug trafficking cases as a positive first step, which, when implemented, could result in a significant reduction in the imposition of the death penalty. However, the organisation was alarmed that that the legislative changes appear to be limited to drug-related cases only.
“The mandatory death penalty removes from the judges the possibility of weighing the different factors of the crime or of the defendant, leaving them the only option of imposing the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. The announced reforms are a golden opportunity to remove this unfairness from our laws, for all crimes,” said Gwen Lee.
The case for the full repeal of the mandatory death penalty
Amnesty International has assessed the impact of recent reforms to the mandatory death penalty in neighbouring Singapore, where limited sentencing discretion was introduced for murder and drug trafficking cases from 2013. The new report, Cooperate or Die, also reveals how death penalty reforms introduced in 2013, while reducing the number of people sentenced to death, do not go nearly far enough and in particular have left life and death decisions in the hands of the public prosecutor instead of judges.
“The reforms introduced in 2013 were a step in the right direction and have allowed some people to escape the gallows, including for drug trafficking. But in key respects they have been flawed from the outset”, said Chiara Sangiorgio, Amnesty International’s adviser on the death penalty.
“Singapore likes to paint itself as a prosperous and progressive role model, but its use of the death penalty shows flagrant disregard for human life. The country relies on harsh laws that overwhelmingly target drug offenders on the lower rungs of the ladder, many of whom will come from disadvantaged backgrounds”.
Amnesty International’s investigation, based on extensive analysis of court documents, shows that Singaporean courts continue to hand down mandatory sentences in drug-trafficking cases, even though the new reforms should allow for more leniency.
The majority of people sent to death row for drug offences in the last four years have possessed relatively small amount of drugs and many say they were driven to the drug trade by unemployment or debt.
Since the new reforms were introduced in 2013, drug carriers should be able to avoid mandatory death sentences by co-operating sufficiently with the state prosecutor during the investigation phase or trial. However, decisions on who meets this criteria rests fully with the public prosecutor and not the judge, and are taken behind closed doors in a murky and non-transparent process.
“The use of mandatory death sentences in Singapore, in Malaysia and elsewhere must end immediately. Although there has been a reduction in such sentences in the last few years, the fact that they are still used at all is cause for deep concern,” said Chiara Sangiorgio.
Death penalty and poverty
This year the World Day against the Death Penalty (10 October) focuses on the link between the death penalty and poverty. Research shows that people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds are disproportionately affected in their experience of the criminal justice system and often carry the burden of the death penalty.
“The situation is no different in Malaysia, where it is often those who come from disadvantaged backgrounds who end up paying the price of the death penalty,” said Gwen Lee.
On World Day against the Death Penalty, Amnesty International is launching an appeal for Hoo Yew Wah, on death row in Malaysia. He was convicted of and sentenced to the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking, having been arrested in 2005. Hoo Yew Wah has a disadvantaged socio-economic background, having left school to work as a cook for a street restaurant at the age of 11. He was 20 at the time of the crime, which was not violent in addition to being his first offence. He has asked for pardon from the Sultan of Johor state, who has the ability to grant him clemency.
Hoo Yew Wah was convicted on the basis of a statement he made at the time of arrest in Mandarin – later translated by the police into Malay – without a lawyer present. He also says that on the day after his arrest, while detained at the District Police Headquarter in Johore, the police broke his finger and threatened to beat his girlfriend to make him sign the statement. The judges in his case dismissed these concerns.
“We are joining in support of Hoo Yew Wah and his family to ask His Royal Highness the Sultan of Johor to grant his clemency appeal. His case is well representative of the plight of the death penalty in Malaysia. Time for action is now,” said Gwen Lee.
Mandatory death sentences leave courts no option but to condemn drug offenders to the gallows. Drug trafficking does not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes” to which the use of the death penalty must be restricted under international human rights law.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases and under any circumstances, regardless of the nature of the crime, the characteristics of the offender, or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The organisation considers the death penalty a violation of the right to life as recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
Pending full abolition of the death penalty, Amnesty International calls for your urgent intervention to halt all executions and to broaden the scope of the proposed reforms to encompass all capital offences; and to abolish the automatic presumptions of drug possession and trafficking allowed under Section 37 of the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1952 as initial steps.
For more information or to arrange an interview, please call Amnesty International Malaysia’s office in Petaling Jaya, Selangor on:
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