By M. Ravi
This morning, at 6am, the execution of Chijioke Stephen Obioha took place. I am not even sure if his family from Nigeria were able to attend. Soon it will be all forgotten together with Chijioke’s name, but for the many of us who fight and campaign to eradicate this barbaric practice of death by hanging, and for those of us who challenge the mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking in Singapore, our work will go on. And it must.
Violations to Humanity
In Singapore, when drug possession and trafficking is presumed, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant. This is an abhorrent violation of fair trial rights, specifically the presumption of innocence. International law also requires that the use of the death penalty be restricted to the “most serious crimes”. The UN Human Rights Committee has on numerous occasions found that drug-related offences do not meet the criterion of “most serious crimes”.
Siding with the Traffickers?
I have written, spoken and fought against the death penalty for drug-related crimes for several years now. In this time, I have been confronted with several questions from the other side of the camp. Some queried my determined obsession to defend these accused persons. “They are just drug traffickers, scums of the earth who bring vile filth to our country.” “Drug traffickers deserve the noose, not mercy.” “They knew the law, they chose to break it.” “Innocent people can be hurt or killed by the drugs.” “Do you have a soft spot for traffickers?” “By siding with the accused, you generate false hope.”
Let me be absolutely clear that I wish all drug traffickers are caught and brought to justice – drugs should never enter this Island I call home. There is no doubt that all those who are behind the trafficking of drugs should be caught and brought to justice – not just the mules/couriers, but also the drug lords. But justice cannot be gained by the taking away of another person’s life. “An eye for an eye” or “lex talionis” is believed by many to be poetic justice, but for many like me, it is barbaric, unethical and amoral. Many feel that retributive justice is the best response to a crime, but to me, the death penalty attains nothing, deters nothing and solves nothing.
Right to Punish v The Right to Kill
The debate on death penalty is complex because it isn’t shaped by just logic and ideology but is rigged with emotions and personal experience. A provocative topic, it serves no purpose in a modern society and efforts should be refocused to address the core issues which result in the crime in the first place. There is consensus that criminal offending is a symptom of greater societal problems. Using violence to address these symptoms does not abate the problem – in fact, the act of execution as a punishment only further endorses the use of violence. There are several pertinent reasons why I hope the government resists the temptation to simply look tough on crime by preserving the mandatory death penalty. Below are some:
An argument that many make in support of death penalty is that it ‘acts as deterrence’. But if we were to believe in the studies carried out by many organisations including human rights watch groups like Amnesty International, we can easily conclude that this is untrue. Well-planned crimes like terrorist activities and pre-meditated murders are carried out with the knowledge of the consequences because they don’t really care about the punishment. I fail to see how death penalty is a deterrent to the drug lords and underworld dons when the trafficking is carried out mainly by youths who are incredibly marginalised, vulnerable to exploitation, manipulation, and coercion. I remember reading somewhere a description that with death penalty, the “mailman dies and the drug lord laughs”. I doubt the message of deterrence is even audible to the originators in the crime chain.
Death penalty therefore fails miserably in reducing crime. There is a risk that it creates irreversible mistakes for people who are being framed or being “sacrificed” in the event that the perpetration does not proceed as planned.
Another reason for challenging death penalty is that we can never be sure that we will never execute the wrong person. Some people fall victims to the death penalty even when they are innocent because the criminal justice system is functioned by humans (whether judges, investigating officers or lawyers) who are fallible. They can make mistakes or bear discrimination and history is littered with examples of people on death row who had their innocence proven only at the very last moment. As a society, we shouldn’t wait for a wrongful execution to happen before we call for its abolition. Miscarriages of justice cannot be remedied and are irreversible by nature.
Proponents of the death penalty believe that through execution, the perpetrator never returns back to the society to cause it harm again. Yes, true, but so does life sentence without the possibility of parole as it exists in Singapore, and it is done so in a more humane fashion. Anyone who feels that a criminal would enjoy his stay in jail for the rest of his life and be eternally thankful is mistaken. Jails are horrific places.
Finally, but not lastly, I strongly believe that there has to be some limit on punishment – this limit is certainly crossed when we decide to take the life of a person. Yes, we have the right to punish, but humanity fails in dire proportions when it starts believing that it also has the right to kill.
Facts from Amnesty International: In July 2014, Singapore carried out its first 2 executions since 2012, when 2 men were hanged after they had been convicted and mandatorily sentenced to death for drug trafficking. Their executions ended a moratorium on death penalty established in July 2012 to allow Parliament time to review the country’s laws. Since then, there have been 5 other executions, including 3 for drug trafficking. At least 5 new mandatory death sentences were imposed in 2015, 4 for drug trafficking and 1 for murder. At least 23 people remained on death row at the end of 2015. As of today, 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or practice; in the Asia Pacific region, 19 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and a further 8 are abolitionist in practice.
“With every cell of my being and with every fiber of my memory I oppose the death penalty in all form. I do not believe any civilized society should be at the service of death. I don’t think it’s human to become an agent of the Angel of Death.”
Holocaust Survivor, Elie Wiesel, 1986 Nobel Peace Prize Winner