A protester holds a sign up against a backdrop of palm trees which reads 'execute justice not people' during an anti-death penalty protest.

Malaysia should scrap the death penalty once and for all

The move would send a strong signal to other Southeast Asian governments.

In January, Malaysia’s Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said the cabinet would discuss the findings of a study on alternatives to the mandatory death penalty, which applies to crimes including drug trafficking, treason, and murder.

After almost two years without any progress on death penalty reform, this is a welcome development.

For more than 40 years, Amnesty International has campaigned against the death penalty around the world, and more than two-thirds of countries have abolished it in law or in practice. Here’s why Malaysia – and other countries that retain the death penalty – should show human rights leadership and set an example by scrapping it once and for all.

Simply put, governments should not kill people. Or as the United Nations Human Rights Committee has put it, “the death penalty cannot be reconciled with full respect for the right to life.”

Every single human being has the inherent right to life and governments have an obligation to protect lives, not take them. This right is recognized under international law for all human beings, without distinctions of any kind, including for persons suspected or convicted of even the most serious crimes.

Amnesty International, and many other individuals and organizations around the world, believes that the death penalty violates this right.

In Malaysia, we have found numerous violations of the right to a fair trial. Defendants who cannot afford or are unable to hire their own lawyers are often unrepresented during police interrogations, and lack interpretation if they do not speak Bahasa Malaysia, while there are credible allegations of torture and other ill treatment at the hands of authorities, among other examples.

The imposition of the death penalty after a violation of the right to a fair trial is a violation of the right to life. There is no perfect criminal justice system and mistakes can always occur. The irreversible nature of the death penalty leaves no room for redress if an innocent person is wrongfully convicted and executed.

The death penalty also discriminates. The greater the disadvantage, the greater the risk of being sentenced to death. Our research has found that the burden of the death penalty in Malaysia has largely fallen on those convicted of drug trafficking, which has disproportionately included women and foreign nationals.

As of September 2021, 67 percent of people on death row are there for drug offenses, some for carrying as little as 15 grams of opioids. A majority of people sentenced to death are also from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, while ethnic minorities are overrepresented among those on death row.

These findings gain an even greater significance when considered in the context of laws and policies that contravene international law and standards: for example, the lack of access to interpretation from the point of arrest for foreign nationals, or the impossibility of having coercion or other mitigating circumstances taken into account at sentencing, because of the mandatory death penalty.

The application of the death penalty can also be arbitrary, particularly for those whose nationality, gender, socioeconomic background, or other characteristics can contribute, or leave them more vulnerable, to being sentenced to death.

What about the argument that the death penalty acts as a unique deterrent against crime?

This has never been backed by evidence. For instance, a study comparing the murder rates in Hong Kong and Singapore, both of a similar size and population, for a 35-year period beginning in 1973 found that the abolition of the death penalty in Hong Kong and the high execution rate in Singapore in the mid-1990s had little impact on murder levels.

It is high time the authorities focused their resources on tackling the root causes of crime and devised long-term, more effective solutions. The death penalty does not make us safer. Furthermore, we believe those found responsible for crime deserve second chances.

These beliefs are becoming mainstream. As of today, 144 countries – more than two-thirds of the world’s nations – have abolished the death penalty in law or practice. In the Asia-Pacific region, more than 20 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes, with Papua New Guinea becoming the latest in January of this year.

In 2020, six Asia-Pacific countries carried out executions, the lowest since Amnesty International began keeping records. Despite voting at the U.N. General Assembly in 2018 and 2020 in favor of two resolutions calling on all countries to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty, Malaysia remains part of an increasingly isolated minority of countries that still practices capital punishment.

Given that it recently took its seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council, by abolishing the death penalty, Malaysia can align itself with the global trend, improve its human rights record, and send a strong signal to other countries in ASEAN and the region that positive change on the death penalty is not only possible, but required to protect human rights.

We call on Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob and his cabinet to do the right thing and abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Diplomat.


Learn more about Amnesty International Australia’s campaigns to end the death penalty and how you can help save lives today.

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