Kirsten Han /
A forum held in Kuala Lumpur on 11 May 2011 was the first in a series of events to be organised as part of a long-term campaign for the abolishment of the death penalty in Malaysia.
The forum, which focused on the death penalty in relation to drug offences, had three panellists: Andrew Khoo, chairman of the Malaysian Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee, YB Gobind Singh, lawyer and MP of Puchong, and M Ravi, Singaporean human rights lawyer.
The forum’s moderator, Ms Sharmila Kumari of human rights NGO Hakam, opened the forum with the hope that the death penalty campaign would become a national movement. “As Malaysians we cannot just sit back as fellow citizens are in this situation [facing the death penalty] without making a stand,” she said.
The first speaker, Mr Gobind, questioned the necessity of the mandatory aspect of the death penalty, which takes away the judges’ discretion in meting out sentences. “At the end of the day you should trust your judges,” he said.
He explained the presumption clauses that are part of Malaysia’s Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA), which shifts the burden of proof on to the accused*. The law is therefore stacked against the accused, and makes it extremely easy to convict a person.
Once a person is convicted, the judge has no choice but to hand down the death sentence.
Mr Gobind mentioned that there had been cases in Malaysia where appeal courts later found that prior judges had been wrong, or when laws had been amended as they were deemed to be wrong or unjust.
“What do you tell the families of those people who have been hanged [under the old law]?” he asked the audience.
He later added that “where a system is subject to flaws I don’t think we should take the risk to subject a person to death”, as the execution of a death sentence is irreparable, and studies suggest that it does not work as a deterrence.
In his speech, Mr Ravi stated that in all Commonwealth countries except Malaysia and Singapore, the mandatory death penalty has been declared to be a “cruel and unusual punishment”. This is because the mandatory nature does not allow any room for mitigation, and takes away the powers of the judges.
He updated the audience on the case of Yong Vui Kong, whose case has gained a lot of media attention in Malaysia. Vui Kong has until 4 July 2011 to submit his clemency petition. If the petition is turned down, Mr Ravi expects that Vui Kong will be executed some time in November.
Mr Ravi urged the Malaysian government to intervene on the behalf of another Malaysian, Cheong Chun Yin, who is also in Singapore’s death row. Cheong’s time is running out as a reply to his clemency petition to the Singapore president could arrive any day now.
He also felt that certain issues in the case of Yong Vui Kong would give Malaysia the grounds to take the case up with the International Court of Justice in a bid to save the young man’s life.
Mr Ravi then brought up the case of Noor Atiqah, a Singaporean single mother who was sentenced to death in the Shah Alam High Court in Malaysia in March 2011. Atiqah currently has two more rounds of appeals to go, and is being represented by forum panellist Mr Gobind.
Mr Ravi spoke about the cooperation between himself and Mr Gobind, as well as with the UK-based Death Penalty Project, to mount a constitutional challenge of the mandatory death penalty in Malaysia.
“We are quite positive this challenge will succeed,” Mr Ravi said, adding that the momentum that the anti-death penalty campaign has gained in Malaysia since Yong Vui Kong’s case was first brought up has been encouraging. He urged the Malaysian people to continue pushing the momentum and to “make a stand to say that lives cannot be taken for granted.”
The final speaker, Mr Khoo, gave a brief overview of the DDA in Malaysia,which was first passed in 1952. He pointed out that from 1952 – 1975, the DDA did not have a provision for the death penalty to be used, and that the death penalty was only made mandatory in 1983.
He also presented the following statistics: between 1988 and 1995, human rights organisation SUARAM reported that there were 194,797 drug addicts registered. Between 1988 and 2005, there were 289,763 drug addicts registered, meaning that there had been an increase of 94,966 drug addicts between 1995 and 2005.
Mr Khoo asked the audience to think about what the statistics suggested. “Are we not hanging enough people? Or is the mandatory death penalty not working?” he said.
He urged everyone to look at the socio-economic background of many of the people who had been deemed by the courts to be trafficking drugs. “We need to ask ourselves whether society is somehow partly responsible forputting these people in a situation of being susceptible to being in thesecircumstances,” he said.
Like his fellow panellists, Mr Khoo also questioned the need for the mandatory death penalty, saying, “We want experienced judges, but at a time where they can bring their experience to bear in sentencing, we have taken the power away from them.”
In closing, Mr Khoo brought up the issue of public perception of the death penalty, which he said was the “greatest challenge” in the campaign.
He felt that anti-death penalty campaigners would have to be ready and willing to address the fact that families are being hurt by loved ones turning into drug addicts, and that such a debate was necessary.
He also highlighted a need for a situation or case that would point out the sheer injustice of the mandatory death penalty for drugs to the public “to bring the story home”.
After the panellists had given their speeches, Chun Yin’s father, Mr Cheong, made an emotional and desperate plea to the audience, saying that his son had been tricked into carrying drugs into Singapore.
“I don’t know what to do. He’s been used by others, what can I do?” he asked with tears in his eyes. “I asked him to come back and help me again. I’m sick, I have high blood pressure, I need to take medication… what can I do now? I don’t sleep at night. I just wait for him to come home.”
What the public can do
During the question-and-answer session, Mr Gobind said that according to the Home Minister, 441 people** have been hanged in Malaysia since 1960, for which 228 cases were for drug offences.
The Home Minister also revealed that, as of 2 February 2011, 696 people are currently on death row in Malaysia, 479 for drug offences.
The panellists all agreed with a suggestion from the floor that a coordinated, long-term and sustained campaign be launched against the death penalty in Malaysia. Both Ms Kamuri and Mr Khoo said the door was open for any volunteers or organisations in Malaysia to join the campaign.
The panellists, as well as Ms Ngeow Chow Ying from the Save Vui Kong Campaign, also urged the Malaysian public to lobby their respective MPs and state assemblymen, as well as to do their part in raising public awareness within their own networks of family and friends.
After the forum, the audience was invited to take a look at a small exhibition by Amnesty International’s Malaysian chapter on the death penalty around the world.
* These presumption clauses can also be found in Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act.
** An Amnesty International report on the death penalty in Singapore estimated that 420 people have been hanged between 1991 – 2004.