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When sentences are a matter of life and death

Malaysia is one of 55 UN member countries that still use the death penalty.

Amanda Suriya
3 minute read
NFCorp mendakwa Nurul Izzah membuat kenyataan fitnah dalam siaran Malaysiakini TV pada 7 Mac 2012. Gambar: Bernama
NFCorp mendakwa Nurul Izzah membuat kenyataan fitnah dalam siaran Malaysiakini TV pada 7 Mac 2012. Gambar: Bernama

Earlier this week, 27-year-old Mohammad Awari Ahmad lost his final appeal against the death sentence imposed on him for the rape and murder of a nurse five years ago.

Awari had slashed the woman on both sides of her neck before raping her as she bled – an act witnessed by her five-year-old son. He then stole her mobile phone along with RM200 and went to “celebrate” by drinking seven bottles of liquor at a restaurant, according to the prosecution.

For his act, which the prosecution described this week as “brutal, aggressive and vicious”, Awari will hang.

Government statistics put the number of prisoners on death row in Malaysia at over 1,200 as of end-2019. Death is the mandatory punishment for those convicted of murder, drug trafficking, kidnapping, treason and waging war against the king, among others.

But not everyone on death row is there for crimes such as Awari’s.

According to rights group Amnesty International Malaysia, the majority of those facing execution are in for drug offences, not violent crimes. Amnesty estimates that over 73% of those facing the death penalty are there for drug offences.

Drugs or murder, though, the same punishment awaits.

Malaysia is one of 55 United Nations member countries that retain the death penalty.

In July 2018, the government led by Pakatan Harapan (PH) at the time imposed a moratorium on all executions. In October that year, it pledged to undertake efforts to abolish the practice in its entirety.

But PH fell out of power early this year, and it remains to be seen if its successor to federal authority, Perikatan Nasional, will continue its stand.

For some, the death penalty is an alternative to sentences of life imprisonment which put additional strain on already-full prisons run on taxpayers’ money.

Drugs or murder, the same punishment awaits.

And, of course, there is the question of justice for those who suffer irreplaceable losses.

“Of course, part of me would want to see vengeance exacted against anyone who does my loved ones harm,” Harish K, who has two daughters, told MalaysiaNow.

“I would want them to pay the heaviest penalty possible, to see them suffer and their lives snuffed out.”

But Harish also admits that this would be an emotional reaction.

“Emotions should play no role in the justice system,” he added. “Life imprisonment without parole is bad enough.”

‘Retribution or rehabilitation?’

Amnesty, which has long fought against the use of capital punishment in Malaysia, says opposing the death sentence is not intended to minimise or condone the retributionist approach to violent crimes.

Rather, it is to afford the convicted individual the chance of rehabilitation.

“Executing someone because they’ve taken someone’s life is revenge, not justice,” an Amnesty spokesman told MalaysiaNow.

“Any society which executes offenders is committing the same violence it condemns.”

Mother-of-two Fizi Hafizah agrees. “Everybody deserves a second chance,” she said when approached by MalaysiaNow.

How effective the death sentence is in deterring crime is also a subject of debate.

According to Amnesty, “draconian drug policies” give “zero effective protection from drug-related harm”.

“Any society which executes offenders is committing the same violence it condemns.”

“The death penalty does not have a unique deterrent effect (for drug crimes), and draconian drug policies have failed to tackle the use and availability of drugs in the country,” the spokesman said.

“There is little evidence to show that the death penalty has any effect on crime rate.”

Right to life

Some also see the death penalty as contradicting the right to life laid out in the Federal Constitution.

Bar Council president Salim Bashir told MalaysiaNow that the Malaysian Bar had consistently upheld this belief.

He said use of the death penalty also robbed the courts of their discretion to impose sentences on convicted criminals in cases of capital punishment.

There is also the question of whether the person condemned to hang will later be found innocent.

He gave the example of situations where mere drug mules are caught, convicted and sentenced to death, saying miscarriages of justice could occur.

He raised concerns over self-incriminating statements taken during police interrogation without the presence of a lawyer, or even mistakes made by lawyers themselves which could jeopardise the trial and result in a conviction.

“Society should be mindful that the death sentence has an irreversible effect when wrongful execution is found.”