HomeCommentaryDeath keeps its sting in the court of Malaysian public opinion

Death keeps its sting in the court of Malaysian public opinion

In the nearly 20 months since the Pakatan Harapan coalition came to power in Malaysia, one of its key legal pursuits has been to repeal the death penalty.

While it has hit a couple of hurdles, in January the government does look set to amend the law to give discretionary powers to judges in capital cases.

From a liberal viewpoint, it would appear the country is moving in the right direction, but opponents of the death penalty should not hold their breath for its abolition.

Sure enough, in political and legal circles it is no longer seen as an effective deterrent.

Even the previous administration, which utilised draconian colonial-era laws to maintain order, came to realise that execution was an overly harsh and distasteful punishment for an increasing number of cases.

Death is a possibility for people convicted of any of 17 crimes in Malaysia and is mandatory for murder, drug trafficking, treason and waging war against the king.

Herein lies one of the most controversial debates: Malaysia, like its neighbours in the Golden Triangle of narcotics, began executing traffickers as the international drug trade exploded.

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This was based on the premise of the ultimate deterrent and a zero-tolerance approach to the illicit trade, but after decades of continued trafficking Malaysia became plagued with controversial cases moving through its legal system.

A recent report by Amnesty International said 73 percent of inmates awaiting execution in Malaysia were convicted of drug trafficking but, as has been publicised innumerable times over the years, many of these prisoners were mules.

For years, it has been a common tactic for drug dealers in the region to use often unwitting mules, particularly women, to ply their trade.

These mules are often tricked into bringing packages, contents unknown, into the country, trusting a supposed boyfriend or an employer.

Amnesty goes on to allege cases of police subterfuge in the legal process, encouraging foreigners who don’t speak the language to sign forms written in Malay, which later turn out to be full confessions.

Meanwhile, death as a punishment for murder has proven similarly ineffective.

Judges routinely convict people of murder in Malaysia for the same reasons they do overseas: for everything from gangland hits to crimes of passion.

For these crimes, death is a mandatory punishment. Judges do not have discretionary powers to commute the sentence to, say life imprisonment, regardless of any mitigating factors.

Nevertheless, judges and politicians alike find sentencing a human being to death particularly distasteful.

In trafficking trials, it is not uncommon for a judge to throw out the case if there is even the slightest hint of a discrepancy in the prosecution’s preparation.

Similarly, the home minister does have the power to commute death sentences in extenuating circumstances.

So, if the legislative, executive and judiciary are so opposed to capital punishment, what’s the problem?

A key stumbling block is the public.

Polls by a number of newspapers in Malaysia put public support for the death penalty at more than 80 percent.

While the current administration has tried to fall more into line with liberal democracies overseas, it has been mistaken in the belief that even the liberal voting public shares its views.

Despite a growing movement to abolish the death penalty, Malaysians resolutely believe that the most heinous crimes should receive the harshest of punishments, willing to dispense retribution as the ultimate form of justice.

The issue of how to roll back a wrongful conviction and subsequent execution seems to fall on deaf ears.

In fact, some have called for mandatory execution of people convicted of rape, especially child rape.

The latter opens up another can of worms with the underlying problem of child marriage in the country, where again public perception is that the threat of the hangman’s noose will prevent the crime.

While there is agreement that judges should be given more discretion in sentencing, the belief is the death penalty is here to stay.

Moreover, public opinion has become increasingly polarised with recent developments in the murder of Mongolian Shaariibuugiin Altantuyaa in 2006.

On Jan. 13, 2015, two Special Branch police officers were convicted of her killing and sentenced to death in a trial that embroiled then-prime minister Najib Razak, given the two men were part of Najib’s protection detail at the time.

Altantuyaa was a known associate of Abdul Razak Baginda, who had assisted Najib in negotiating a submarine deal when the latter was defence minister.

However, rumours swirled that Altantuyaa had been murdered on Najib’s orders, or even on those of his wife Rosmah Mansor, despite both of them denying having any connection to the woman.

The trial never established a link between the politician, his wife and the victim, finding Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri and Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar guilty of the crime.

Yet, during sentencing Sirul said he was a patsy, acting on behalf of persons not brought to trial.

He subsequently escaped and fled to Australia, where he remains to this day, in exile knowing he will not be extradited while the threat of execution remains.

The case took another twist a couple of weeks ago when Azilah, on death row since his conviction, alleged he killed Altantuyaa under orders from Najib and Abdul Razak, having been told she was a foreign spy.

The statement made to the court has ignited public opinion, and it is yet another scandal coming back to haunt Najib and Rosmah in their fall from grace.

While they maintain a small but loyal following, their unabashed and opulent lifestyle during his rise to power and governance of Malaysia, caused widespread revulsion — even among their allies.

This also formed one of the key campaign promises for the current administration in last year’s general election: to root out rampant corruption and target the big fish. No one would be above the law.

Azilah’s statutory declaration has also cemented widely held views that Najib — already facing multiple corruption charges in a series of trials for massive fraud — behaved like a medieval despot, bleeding the country dry while taking out anyone who threatened his existence with scant regard.

With the possibility of someone once so untouchable going on trial for his life, abolishing capital punishment would be the last thing on people’s minds.

If indeed the biggest of fish was found guilty, the public would demand their justice.

Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.

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