Asia moving away from the death penalty

Mabel Au says although there are exceptions, Asian societies are joining the worldwide movement opposing the use of capital punishment

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 December, 2012, 2:41am

Anti-death-penalty activists worldwide have been taking to the streets to express their commitment to life and opposition to the death penalty. October 10 was World Day Against the Death Penalty, and yesterday more than 30 cities illuminated a symbolic monument to commemorate the first abolition of the death penalty by a European state in 1786.

The voices of activists echo the developments recorded by Amnesty International last year, which show that the global trend towards abolition of the death penalty continues. Last year, Amnesty recorded executions in 20 countries; in 2010, it was 23. Progress was made in all parts of the world, including Asia.

Malaysia has announced it will consider replacing the mandatory death penalty for drug offences with prison sentences. Most of the estimated 900 death-row prisoners have been sentenced for drug offences. Under Malaysian law, the death penalty is mandatory for murder and drug trafficking. Mandatory death sentences, which prevent judges using discretion, are contrary to international human rights standards.

Singapore has proposed amendments to replace the mandatory death penalty with discretionary sentencing in some cases, such as where suspects co-operate substantively with investigations.

Beijing has eliminated the death penalty for 13 non-violent economic crimes, and China's Criminal Procedure Law has been amended, introducing new procedures enhancing access to legal aid, requiring the recording of interrogations and introducing mandatory appellate hearings and more rigorous review processes in death penalty cases.

Mongolia confirmed its moratorium on the use of the death penalty in January.

The extent of progress in Asia should not be overemphasised. The Malaysian government's proposed review of the death penalty extends only to drug-trafficking cases. In Singapore, one proposal is to make drug traffickers liable to caning instead.

In China, the death penalty remains for other non-violent crimes, such as corruption and drug trafficking, and the circumstances under which a death sentence may be imposed for producing and selling fake drugs or poisonous or harmful foodstuffs have been widened. People facing the death penalty in China continue to face unfair trials.

Nevertheless, opposition to the death penalty is steadily growing in Asia, with societies increasingly questioning the legitimacy of capital punishment. Last year, a seminar on the reform of the death penalty was organised in China, and this year two seminars aimed at the progressive abolition of the death penalty in Asia have been held in Hong Kong.

Progress towards limiting the use of the death penalty in Asia is uneven, with frequent setbacks, but it mirrors the global trend towards abolition. On November 19, the UN General Assembly's human rights committee adopted its fourth draft resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions. The resolution was co-sponsored by 91 states, the highest number yet. Reflecting changing attitudes towards the death penalty in Asia, Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia - all previous opponents of a global moratorium - moved from opposition to abstention when voting.

Mabel Au Mei-po is the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong section