Removing the mandatory death penalty as a first step towards full abolition

Mandatory Death Penalty

By Kirsten Han

A workshop session at the first Asian Congress of Death Penalty in Kuala Lumpur agreed on Thursday that the mandatory death penalty could be the low-hanging fruit for the abolitionist movement, and that its removal would be a step towards getting rid of capital punishment.

Professor Chan Wing Cheong, associate professor at the School of Law at the National University of Singapore, said the way the Misuse of Drugs Act and the mandatory death penalty were applied raised many points of concern.

Presumption clauses, for example, make it very difficult for an individual to prove his or her innocence.

“The prosecution can charge a person for trafficking, but they don’t have to prove trafficking. They only have to prove possession,” he said.

The amendments to the death penalty are also very narrow, allowing judges discretion in very specific cases.

Prof Chan Wing Cheong
Prof Chan Wing Cheong

“Even though Singapore has moved slightly in terms of the mandatory sentencing regime, it’s very limited, and there will always be cases that fall beyond the line,” he said, adding that it would be much better to give full discretion to judges.

“Every restriction is a step towards abolition,” said Parvais Jabbar of the Death Penalty Project, which seeks to limit the scope of the death penalty through litigation.

Dr Azmi Sharom, a law professor from the University of Malaya, observed that the mandatory death penalty was not as much of a “political hot potato”, as the Death Penalty Project’s research had found that most Malaysians were not in favour of mandatory capital punishment. It would therefore be easier to first persuade governments to remove the mandatory aspect, before striving to remove capital punishment altogether.

“There is no one step that will work; you’ll have to struggle on many fronts,” said Australian lawyer Julian McMahon, who had represented Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who had been executed by firing squad in Indonesia to much controversy.

McMahon urged academics, lawyers and activists to work together to tackle the issue from different angles, and to reach out to the media to educate the public on the death penalty and drug policy, so as to debunk claims about deterrence and the necessity of executions.

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.