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DEATH PENALTY-MALAYSIA: Hundreds of Migrants Face Execution for Drug Crimes

Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR, Jun 29 2007 (IPS) - Unskilled worker Henok Sibuea, 30, from Sumatra, Indonesia, gathered together his savings and, like thousands of his compatriots, paid for a boat trip across the Straits of Malacca and landed here hoping to escape poverty, get a job and send money home to his wife and four children.

That was three years ago.

Earlier in June, Sibuea stood shell-shocked in the dock of the High Court in Shah Alam, about 30 km east of the capital, charged with possession of 5,341 grams of cannabis, or marijuana.

He was sentenced to 16 years in jail and to be whipped 10 times, a sentence that brought tears to his eyes.

But compared to fellow Indonesians who languish in Malaysian jails and face the death penalty, Sibuea is a lucky person.

He escaped the hangman’s noose because he was charged with “possession” of cannabis and not “trafficking” which carries a mandatory death penalty.

According to an Indonesian embassy spokesman, “several hundred” Indonesians, a large majority of them from Aceh province on Sumatra’s north-west coast, are incarcerated in jails across the country facing trials mainly for drug crimes and some for murder – capital offences in Malaysia.

“We have written to the Malaysian foreign ministry to get full details of all Indonesians facing the death penalty,” the spokesman told IPS. “We want to do our best to get them legal representation.”

Under Malaysia’s tough Dangerous Drug Act, 1952, possession of 200 grams of cannabis is enough to put one away for a 20-year life sentence.

“If you are charged for trafficking and if found guilty it is death by hanging,” said Ramu Annamalai Kandasamy, a lawyer who is currently handling about 30 death penalty cases, most of them Acehnese charged with drug-related offences like trafficking.

“Most of them are poor and come from poverty stricken villages and enter Malaysia to earn a living but end up on death row,” Ramu told IPS.

He said rural poverty is the main driving force behind the local drug trade. “A kilo of cannabis in Aceh costs about five Malaysian ringgit (about 1.5 dollars) and once it arrives here it can fetch RM 1,600 (about 465 dollars)… that’s the attraction,” he said.

“Their dream is to make it, take the money home, buy a taxi or start a small business. Their poverty drives them to take the high risks,” Ramu said.

“It is sad – they languish in jail, their life in the balance,” said Ramu, who opposes the death penalty. “It is state killing; it’s primitive. Should we be killing other humans?”

According to judicial officers about 10 cases of Indonesians facing the death penalty, mostly for drug offences, are currently before the Federal Court, the country’s highest.

“Another 50 cases are before the Court of Appeal,” one judicial officer said. “There are a few hundreds in the lower courts, some charged and others under investigation.

“There is an upsurge of drug related cases,” the officer said, declining to be named.

This year is ‘Visit Malaysia Year’ and the government is targeting 30 million visitors and offering various incentives, including visa-free entry if travellers fly in on Malaysia Airlines.

More drugs have been entering the country after the entry rules were relaxed for tourists.

“There are more seizures of drugs and more arrests of individuals going by daily newspaper reports,” said Ramu. “There is a surge and eventually it will lead to a surge in the death penalty cases as the arrested individuals are charged in court.”

According to Amnesty International, the upsurge in drug-related death penalty cases is seen not just in Malaysia but across the Asia-Pacific region.

“We are alarmed that more people are sentenced to death for drug offences than for any other crime in several Asia-Pacific countries,” said Amnesty’s Malaysia director Josef Roy Benedict.

He said 16 Asia-Pacific countries continue to use the death penalty for drug crimes, even though there is no evidence to show that the death penalty deters offenders.

In addition, he said several countries including Malaysia, Singapore and North Korea, make it mandatory to impose the death penalty, giving judges no leeway to use discretion.

“Death sentences are meted out like balloons at a children’s party… It’s a case of one size fits all,” said Yap Swee Seng, executive director of SUARAM, a leading human rights group.

Malaysia imposes mandatory death sentences for other offences like terrorism, murder, firearms possession and, lately, for poisoning of the water supply causing death.

According to recent reports in the semi-official newspaper New Straits Times, some prisoners, including Malaysians, who have been convicted of murder, drug trafficking and firearms possession offences have been held in prison for periods between 10 and 22 years.

“In fact, two sentences have been meted out to them – long-term imprisonment in solitary confinement and a death sentence,” said lawyer Charles Hector, who heads the Malaysians Against Death Sentence, a non-governmental organisation campaigning against the death penalty.

“Administrative hitches and delays in handing down written judgements are keeping the convicted persons alive,” Hector said.

“It is extremely cruel to have a death sentence hanging over a person,” he told IPS.

The Malaysia Bar with 12,500 members also strongly opposes the death sentence. It passed a resolution in March 2006 calling for an end to capital punishment and for all death sentences to be commuted.

“The death penalty is a cruel and extreme form of punishment. Keeping a person on death row waiting indefinitely adds to the cruelty,” said Yap.

“The uncertain and indefinite waiting and fearing for the final moment constitutes inhumane psychological torture, the nature of which those who have not suffered the experience will not even begin to comprehend,” he told IPS.

“This issue needs urgent attention as long as capital punishment remains in our statute books,” he said.

The majority of Malaysians are also against the death penalty and the cruelty of keeping persons on death row for years and in solitary confinement.

A poll carried out by a local television network last year showed that 64 percent of the viewers who responded were against the death penalty. Most said it was a form of judicial killing and they supported abolition.

However, the government and large sections of the criminal justice bureaucracy believe that the death penalty is necessary, largely because it deters serious crimes.

“We will not abolish the death penalty because it safeguards the public interest,” the government told opposition politicians who raised the death penalty issue in parliament earlier this year.

“There are enough safeguards in the country’s judicial system to ensure that death sentences are not meted out easily,” M. Kayveas, deputy minister overseeing legal affairs, told the parliament.

However, opposition lawmakers retorted that such “safeguards” are minimal and abuse of the judicial process is rampant.

Under current Malaysian law and practices arrested persons have no immediate access to lawyers, no immediate right to a phone call and no right to full pre-trial disclosure.

The ugly truth is that when dispensing justice mistakes happen frequently, said lawyer Ramu, citing as an example the more than 100 death-row inmates in the U.S. who have been exonerated since 1976.

“The death penalty creates a senseless and vicious cycle of violence,” he said. “We must find the political will to end this senseless killing.”

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