I am delighted to open this event and would like to thank the Bar Council warmly for acting as hosts. It is also encouraging to see so many of you present today for this presentation of the DPP report on public attitudes towards the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia.
I would like to say a few brief words about why the British High Commission is supporting for this work which I believe is the first of its kind to be carried out in Malaysia. It is a subject which stirs strong emotions on both sides of the argument and, as we shall see from the findings, some contradictory ones as well.
The British Government’s stance on the death penalty is clear. My country began the journey towards abolition more than a century ago and carried out its final execution in August 1964. In the past few decades, many other countries have made that same journey and although some 58 countries still retain the death penalty, only 21 carried out executions in 2012. The United States is often held up as an example of a Western country which retains the death penalty but it is worth noting that, even there, it has been abolished in some 20 States and the number of executions annually has been falling steadily since 1999.
Successive British Governments have taken the view that we should take our arguments in favour of abolition to other countries and to make these arguments robustly. We believe strongly that the death penalty undermines human dignity, that there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value, and of course any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible. We acknowledge that for many retentionist countries, neither the Government nor the majority of people will be ready to move straight towards abolition. But the journey can begin with a review of public sentiment, of the range of crimes which carry the death penalty, and of the mandatory nature of sentencing itself. And while it is going through that process, it can introduce a moratorium on the carrying out of such sentences. That is certainly what we, and indeed I know a number of prominent Malaysians, have been arguing for over a number of years.
The subject also raises some important moral dilemmas: how to reconcile the principle of an eye for an eye with that of forgiveness. And we must also remember that this is about people. When Timothy Evans and Derek Bentley were executed in Britain in the 1950s after flawed trials that led to posthumous pardons, it catalysed steps towards abolition in Britain. It reminded us of the inhumanity of capital punishment and the tragedy of getting it wrong. In 2010, I obtained data on the number of Malaysians executed overseas in the preceding 5 years. That number is 50 and many were carried out in countries with less than perfect legal systems. How many, I wonder, might have been innocent? Or how many might have been executed where the punishment didn’t fit the crime?
The positive news is that there is growing international momentum towards abolition, particularly over the past two decades. As I mentioned, last year only 21 countries carried out executions, a figure which has fallen by more than a third over the last decade. Currently countries as diverse as Benin and Kyrgyzstan have begun the process of abolition; and last year the State of Oregon in the United States introduced a moratorium on executions. Let us now hope that events such as today’s will act as a catalyst for similar reflection and action in Malaysia.
Please click here to view the Welcome Address by Christopher Leong, President of the Malaysian Bar.
here to view DPP News Release: DPP launches Report on the Public Opinion Survey on the Mandatory Death Penalty in Malaysia (8 July 2013).
here to view the Report on The Mandatory Death Penalty in Malaysia.