Mistakes “inevitable” in justice system, says panel at conference on death penalty

The inevitability of error

By Kirsten Han

Incompetent investigations, lack of well-trained interpreters or legal counsel are all elements of unfair trials that lead to the miscarriage of justice, a panel at the Asian Congress on the Death Penalty said in Kuala Lumpur on Friday. Given this fact, it is very unsafe to carry out punishments as irreversible as capital punishment.

“Criminal justice is fragile,” said Saul Lehrfreund of The Death Penalty Project. “All it takes is one dishonest police officer, one incompetent lawyer, one over-zealous prosecutor or a mistaken witness, and the system simply fails.”

Lawyers from Taiwan, Indonesia and Malaysia highlighted flaws in capital punishment cases, such as the neglect of due process in high profile cases, or the lack of access to consular access in the case of foreign nationals arrested for capital crimes.

Abdul Rashid Ismail, the past president of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) in Malaysia, highlighted the presumption clauses in Malaysia’s laws related to drug offences – similar to the presumptions within Singapore’s own Misuse of Drugs Act – describing them as “contrary to the fundamental principle of the presumption of innocence.”

These presumption clauses are then compounded by factors such as the inability of poor accused persons to acquire competent legal representation, or to have access to trained interpreters who can adequately explain the charges and court proceedings before the defendant.

Puri Kencana Putri from the Commission for “the Disappeared” and Victims of Violence (Kontras) in Indonesia, also presented the audience with a stream of troubling issues related to capital cases, such as it taking 15 minutes for inmates shot by the firing squad to die, or allegations of corruption that might subvert the course of justice. For example, in the case of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, there were allegations that judges had asked for bribes.

Lehrfreund too named a number of wrongful convictions in the UK which had eroded public endorsement of capital punishment as people began to see the death penalty as an unsafe course of action. Introducing The Death Penalty Project’s report The inevitability of error: The administration of justice in death penalty cases, he cited the case of Iwao Hakamada, a Japanese death row inmate released in 2014 who had been exonerated after 47 years in solitary confinement awaiting execution.

“Retentionist states need to face up to the possibility of wrongful convictions and unfair trials,” he concluded.

Held on the 11 and 12 of June, the Asian Congress of Death Penalty brings together activists, lawyers, parliamentarians and academics to network and discuss pertinent issues related to the abolitionist movements around the world. Organisers say that the event has attracted about 300 participants from 30 countries.

Note: The writer is a founding member of We Believe in Second Chances, a Singapore-based campaign to abolish the death penalty.