WHEN legislators voted to abolish the death penalty in 1991, Peggy Lam Pu Yu-dja was among the minority who felt it should remain on the statute books. Three years later, she has not changed her mind. With violent crimes on the increase, Mrs Lam believes that murderers and rapists should be hanged. 'Multiple rapists should receive the death penalty because, if they get away with it, it is so unfair to the victim. They spoil the victim's life, her future, and it will be in her heart throughout her life.' Mrs Lam is among a small but growing number of voices who believe the judiciary is too soft on criminals and that capital punishment may be a more effective deterrent in preventing heinous crime. That view is shared by David Chu Yu-lin, a member of the pro-China Preliminary Working Committee (PWC). 'The local judiciary appears nowadays to have gone soft . . . I am one of the chorus calling out for the return of the death penalty, at least on the statute books,' he wrote after Local Inspectors' Association chairman Deputy Commissioner Peter So Lai-yin was reprimanded for saying he wanted to canvass the PWC on bringing back the death penalty. If all eyes are on China over this issue, it is because the mainland could bring back capital punishment after it resumes sovereignty in 1997. After all, the death penalty is still very much in force on the mainland. Two months ago, three Hong Kong triad members were executed for drug smuggling, and only last week the official China News Service announced the execution of 35 people for forcing women into prostitution and drug trafficking. Certainly the mainland 'war against crime' prompted one senior Chinese official to interpret the Basic Law as allowing for the return of capital punishment in Hong Kong. Jhang Rongshun, an administrator at the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, told the Sunday Times of London that the new administration in 1997 would decide whether to execute offenders. Psychiatrist Dr Barry Connell, who compiles psychiatric reports on prisoners in Hong Kong, said he could not rule out the possibility of China re-introducing the death penalty in Hong Kong. 'Some prisoners who were on death row before Hong Kong abolished executions are worried they could be transferred to China after 1997 to face their true [original] sentence,' he said. There were 40 such prisoners - 39 men and one woman - on Hong Kong's death row when the Legislative Council voted to abolish the death sentence in June 1991. The Crimes (Amendment) (No 3) Bill, which reached the statute books two years later, commuted these sentences to life imprisonment. Since the territory had not carried out an execution since 1966, to keep capital punishment on the statute books was seen as a mockery and so it was brought into line with British policy. But Nihal Jayawickrama, a law professor at Hong Kong University, says this will not be the case after 1997. 'The constraints of British policy will not be in place after 1997 and if the Legislative Council wants it, the SAR [Special Administrative Region] won't stop it. It will depend of the nature of public opinion at the time and the intentions of the SAR,' he said. 'China has extended the range of offences that come under their execution laws and they might have a problem with one rule for Hong Kong and another for the mainland.' Professor Jayawickrama felt the impending reversion to China meant the reinstatement of capital punishment was becoming more likely: 'The chances of the death penalty coming back to Hong Kong are moving from the possible into the probable. 'All around us in the region it is in force. China might decide to keep this policy for the whole region, including us.' He added that, should Hong Kong maintain its abolition of the death penalty, he does not expect an influx of criminals on the run from other countries. 'That's not how the criminal mind works. They always think they can get away with it. The figures just don't bear it out. You don't see American criminals running to Canada because it has no death sentence.' During the emotive debate on the issue in 1991, China kept a low profile, saying it was an 'internal law and order problem', but pro-Beijing media in the territory openly called for the death penalty to be kept. Human rights expert Sir William Goodhart, of the International Commission of Jurists, warned at the time: 'If an act was passed, it would be possible for either Legco before 1997 or the SAR after 1997 to restore the death penalty.' Observers have also noted the different treatment Macau has received from Beijing over the same issue. Like Hong Kong, there is nothing specific about the death penalty in its Basic Law, but Premier Li Peng said that should Macau make its opinions clear on the matter, China would not object. No such offer has been made to Hong Kong. Although supporters of the death penalty believe it can act as a deterrent, experts say there is no evidence to support this. Both Dr Connell and Mr Professor Jayawickrama say there has been much research into the subject and all results show the death penalty has no deterring impact on the crime rate. Dr Connell added: 'It is the real people involved in drugs who are not being caught - [it's] just the couriers. 'Many of the people who commit other crimes are mentally ill at the time. The execution of Bentley in Britain persuaded their Government to stop executions.' (Derek Bentley, who had the mind of a child, accompanied Christopher Craig, who was armed, in a robbery. When cornered by police, Bentley said, 'let him have it'. The court construed this to mean 'shoot' rather than 'give him the gun' and Bentley was hanged in 1966, only to receive a limited posthumous pardon in July 1993.) High tallies of executions in Southeast Asia, including the much-publicised hanging of Hong Kong resident Angel Mou Pui-peng in Singapore on January 6, have led Amnesty International to establish a branch in Taiwan, which is campaigning to end the death penalty. The group's Hong Kong branch certainly does not want to see its return here. Amnesty Hong Kong spokesman Robyn Kilpatrick said: 'It is a pseudo-solution and we oppose its use completely. Criminologists say there is no marked difference between crime levels and the existence of capital punishment. Crime depends on social and economic factors.' But Dr Connell warns: 'It is up to the new government how they will handle it. Amnesty International won't be able to stop them if China wants it.' But Mrs Lam is not optimistic: 'Unless something drastic happens, I don't think this will change,' she said.