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Rights groups welcome Malaysia’s move on death penalty

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (Net) — Human rights groups on Tuesday applauded Malaysia’s move to scrap the mandatory death penalty as a major step forward in the push for the abolition of capital pun-ishment in Southeast Asia.
Instead of the death penalty, lawmakers on Monday approved bills to give courts the option of imposing prison sentences of between 30 and 40 years and caning not less than 12 times. Previously, courts had no choice but to mandate hanging as punishment for a range of crimes including murder, drug trafficking, treason, kidnapping and acts of terror.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said Malaysia’s progressive stance could help “break the logjam on forward movement towards abolition of the death penalty” in the 10-member Association of South-east Asian Nations.
“Far too many ASEAN states like to brandish the death penalty as some sort of big stick to scare crimi-nals, but that tactic is not really working. Singapore has gone on an execution spree, Vietnam puts doz-ens to death every year, and even Myanmar is now executing political prisoners, but crime has hardly diminished,” he said.
“Hopefully, the Malaysia move will signal a step back from the death penalty that will be picked up by other states like Thailand, Laos, Brunei and elsewhere who have not put people to death for some time,” he said.
Cambodia and the Philippines are the only two countries in the region that abolished the death penalty, although there were calls to revive it in Manila.
Myanmar had a de-facto moratorium on the death penalty since 1989, but the country’s military rulers executed four political prisoners last year. Singapore resumed executions by hanging 11 people last year after a hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Singapore has come under fire for executions of what critics said were low-level drug smugglers but the government has defended the use of the death penalty as a deterrent. Officials said Singapore had arrest-ed about 6,000 people a year for illegal drugs in the 1990s, but the number has now dropped to about 3,000 people a year.
Reports said three studies conducted or commissioned by the government showed that more than seven in 10 people in the city-state supported the death penalty for the most serious crimes such as intentional murder, use of firearms and drug trafficking.
Robertson said the Malaysian government should show regional leadership by encouraging others in ASEAN to rethink their continued use of the death penalty. He also urged Malaysia to scrap whipping, which he called “feudal anachronism.”
Malaysian rights groups called on the country’s Senate to swiftly pass the bills so that the king can sign them into law.
Once that happens, nearly 850 prisoners on death row who had exhausted all appeals can seek a review of their death sentences, but not their convictions. Most cases were linked to drug trafficking. The re-view can only be done once.
Some 500 others on death row are still going through the appeal process. Dozens of others who are serv-ing natural life sentences can seek to commute them.
Charles Hector from the Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture group said it was clear capital punishment had failed to deter crime as the number of killings and drug trafficking cases remained high. He said the removal of imprisonment for natural life, considered by Pope Francis as a “secret death pen-alty,” would give prisoners a chance to rehabilitate.

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