The value placed on human life can provide a marker of how much a society has progressed – or regressed. In the Philippines, the revival of the death penalty has led to thousands suspected of involvement with illegal drugs being controversially gunned down in the streets by police and vigilantes.
Championing this bloodbath is a self-confessed murderer: President Rodrigo Duterte. He recently admitted that he stabbed a person to death as a teen. (“Philippines president says he once stabbed someone to death”, Nov 10, The Guardian.)
The violent drug war in the Philippines contrasts with the shift towards a more humanitarian approach to drugs in Malaysia.
And now, we’ve moved a little further forward. The death penalty is no longer mandatory for drug offences since a new bill was passed last month to amend the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952.
That alone is progress, as before the amendment judges could only impose a death sentence. They now can impose a sentence of imprisonment for life as an alternative.
How could such a harsh, blanket mandatory ruling ever be justified?
Every case, every person, has his or her own story, with personal circumstances and complexities, caused perhaps by certain conditioning or events. And all humans carry a seed of potential, the hope for change. Which is why every case, every life, needs to be considered individually.
Judges should be allowed to consider mitigating factors, and to offer people a second chance rather than the extreme of death or life imprisonment.
But, in fact, the Dangerous Drugs (Amendment) Bill 2017 only lifts the mandatory ruling in certain limited circumstances, such as:
> That the person convicted was merely transporting, carrying or delivering a drug;
> That s/he assisted law enforcement to disrupt drug trafficking.
Sorry, what? Providing a tip off can help avoid the gallows? Is that always even possible?
Charles Hector, spokesperson for Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet), points out that some people who are convicted “may have very little information”, and may not even know where the drugs came from.
And as drug trafficking is usually controlled by kingpins and criminal organisations, “Will mules [drug couriers] assist if the kingpins threaten them or their families?”
Hector calls for the country to develop a “substantive witness protection scheme”.
Madpet has called for the abolition of the death penalty and a review of the only alternative, life imprisonment.
“It is certainly most unjust to be sentencing a first time offender or a young person to life imprisonment,” Hector says. He also questions the fate of the 800 or more prisoners currently on death row.
Amnesty International Malaysia says it is “deeply troubling” that those accused have to cooperate with authorities to be spared the noose.
“The Bill has failed to provide the judiciary with full discretion to impose sentences and to take into account mitigating factors,” the organisation’s acting executive director Gwen Lee said in a statement.
Amnesty believes that the mandatory death penalty will ultimately be retained for all cases except those with “extremely narrow circumstances”.
In its original form, the Bill also required the Public Prosecutor to certify that the person on trial had “assisted” an enforcement agency. This requirement was scrapped after protests from groups such as Madpet and the Malaysian Bar.
Such certification is still required in Singapore, which made similar amendments to its drug laws in 2013. In practice, how that certificate is given is rather murky.
Consider the sentencing of two co-accused friends convicted of drug trafficking in 2013 in Singapore.
Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim and Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali were working as bouncers in a nightclub when they were presented with the idea of trafficking drugs. Both men agreed to repack and sell a “ball” of heroin. They were later caught by anti-narcotic officers.
Although both faced the same charges, and both provided the prosecution with whatever information they had, only one – Abdul Haleem – got the life-saving “certificate” to escape death. Why? This was unclear. At the sentencing, Abdul Haleem asked to be hanged if his friend was going to the gallows. “If you are sparing my life and not sparing his life, I’d rather go down with him,” he told the judge, choking with emotion, according to The Straits Times (“Drug courier spared the death penalty”, April 11, 2013).
In May this year, Muhammad Ridzuan was executed by hanging, after exhausting all avenues of appeal. He died because he didn’t “assist” the authorities enough to get a certificate.
According to Amnesty, the death penalty in Singapore continues to be extensively imposed even after amendments were made to the drug laws. Will that be the case in Malaysia?
Malaysia is now one of just seven countries worldwide that executes people for drug-related crimes. Yet after all these years of executions, the number of drug users continue to rise. We should hold no illusions about the mandatory death penalty. It doesn’t work. It’s time to drop it, completely, not in some half-baked way. And surely the decision to spare a life should not rest on whether someone “assisted” the authorities enough.