The death penalty around the world has two faces - one is in the international spotlight and the other is hidden from view.
The Australian media rarely reports cases of state-sanctioned killing around the world, in the slight chance it might upset foreign governments. The death penalty in the USA is highly publicised. On the other hand, the death penalty in Asian, Middle Eastern and African countries is shrouded in secrecy – executions are intermittently reported by officials and generally ignored by the media.
According to a recent United Nations Human Rights report, more than 20,300 people are on death row around the world, after being convicted of various crimes, including non-violent crimes. In most countries offenders receive limited defense counsel, one trial one appeal and then executed. In many countries state-sanctioned killings remain a closely guarded state secret. The public in general, has very little knowledge of the facts.
In some countries, speaking out for human rights and against the death penalty, is considered criminal. Many human rights activists and journalists trying to report human rights abuses are incarcerated, tortured, killed or mysteriously dissapear. Nobody dares to appeal for clemency for the condemned. The few local human rights activists and family members struggling to save the lives of the condemned face harassment, intimidation, imprisonment and death threats.
The public is influenced to trust the criminal justice system – that capital punishment is only used for the 'worst-of-the-worst' offenders. But nothing can be further from the truth - the death penalty around the world is applied capriciously and at random. The death penalty around the world is a lethal lottery. Politics, quality of legal counsel, police or prosecutional misconduct, corruption, ominous jury members, who you are, your ethnicity, your financial status, your intellect, the jurisdiction where the crime is committed, and the political climate at the time of the crime or death sentence, and political rivalry are more often the determining factors - more than the actual facts of the crime itself.
Countries that carry out judicial/extra-judicial executions do not kill all those sentenced to death. They ‘select’ offenders to kill - known as ‘legalised selective discrimination’. This selection process is known as blatant discrimination. In the USA, the death penalty is only applied for pre-meditated murder. In most other retentionist countries the death penalty is applied for over 100 violent and non-violent crimes. The vast majority of non-violent criminals do not make it to execution - they are, flogged, tortured, or murdered in prison.
Crimes punishable by death include adultery, apostasy, blasphemy, drug-trafficking, prostitution, homosexuality, sorcery, zina (sexual intercourse between partners not married to each other), individuals converting or preaching Christianity or Judaism, insulting Allah or prophet Muhammad, corruption on Earth (can virtually mean anything; a legal ‘catch-all term’ that the defendant is an enemy of Allah for a variety of offences), pregnant out of wedlock, females wearing indecent clothing, conspiring against the government, consuming alcohol, gambling and plotting to overthrow the Islamic regime. Executions in many countries remain a sordid public spectacle. The condemned are ritually humiliated by being paraded in public and insulted before being executed by beheading, hanging, shot, firing squad, strangled by crane, or stoned to death.
Under strict Islamic and Sharia laws, a male offender is buried up to the waist with his hands tied behind his back, while a female offender is buried up to her neck. Spectators, usually male, then carry out the stoning by hurling rocks and stones at the offender. The stones are deliberately chosen to be large enough to cause pain, but not big enough to kill the offender in just one or two strikes. Eventually (can take up to one hour or more) the offender dies from shock due to blood loss.
More than half of all women are in prison for culture/religious ‘moral crimes’.
Human Rights organizations report that tens of thousands have died hideously, customarily executed in public to the sound of public cheers. Finding some strange pleasure in the public state killing of another human being can only be described as truly “feral”. The Human Rights Committee, established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, has stated that public executions are incompatible with human dignity, which have a brutalizing and dehumanising effects on society. There are deep concerns at the continued imposition of corporal punishment such as human limb amputation or decapitation, floggings and torture. Punishments include chopping off the hand at the wrist for stealing, 40-80 lashes for drinking alcohol or gambling. Some condemned offenders are flogged in public prior to being executed.
Present and past Australian Governments’ have publicly stated that they oppose the death penalty for Australians only - that the death penalty is ‘unacceptable in all circumstances and in all jurisdictions’. The bipartisan policy is that executing Australian citizens is barbaric and seeks clemency, yet the execution of non-Australians is acceptable. Discrimination ??? Surely, these public comments have not gone unnoticed internationally. By focusing just on Australian citizens facing the death penalty in foreign countries smacks of the worst kind of racism. Obviously, principle is sacrificed for political advantage. The rest of the world can only see Australia as hypocritical - speaking with a forked tongue on this ultimate human rights issue as. Internationally, this bipartisan policy damages and forfeits Australia’s credibility over international human rights laws. A global unbiased effort is needed to abolish the death penalty around the world.
In Indonesia, two Australian men stand to be shot to death by firing squad. They are among as many as 64 convicted drug smugglers in the country facing execution and new president Joko Widodo has pledged never to grant a pardon. Australians should be appalled.
Australians should equally condemn the law in Malaysia that would hang a 51-year-old Sydney grandmother by a rope until dead. She is accused of attempting to carry 1.5 kilograms of the drug ice through Kuala Lumpur airport last month.
And Australians should tell Pakistan, without equivocation, that even the hideous slaughter of 132 children by local Taliban in a Peshawar school a few weeks ago does not justify a return of the death penalty, where 500 convicts convicted of "terrorism" may go to the gallows.
That's the thing about a matter of principle; a wrong is a wrong even if done to a person without principle, and capital punishment is wrong. Institutions are fallible, and with the death penalty, mistakes cannot be undone.
Whether in Saudi Arabia for the crime of sorcery or the US for bombing the Boston marathon, Australia should always oppose this punishment.
But the argument becomes much weaker when applied selectively, with a judgement dependent on someone's nationality. The problem for Australia in the diplomatic appeal to Indonesia to spare the life of Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan – two of the Bali Nine condemned to death – is successive governments have not been consistent making the case against the death penalty.
John Howard acknowledged he could be accused of a "double standard" when Indonesia executed the terrorists who orchestrated the 2002 Bali bombings. "I cannot find it in my heart to publicly ask the Indonesian government to spare the lives of the people who murdered 88 Australians," Howard admitted when the bombers went before the firing squad – a position echoed by his then Labor opponent, Simon Crean.
"The fact is the crime was committed on Indonesian soil," Crean argued, "and the Indonesian courts have handed down the death penalty. I won't be seeking to interfere in that decision."
One Labor backbencher warned at the time such words would would be "thrown back in our faces" when an Australian wound up on death row. To plead for clemency for Australians while being indifferent to the plight of non-citizens is at best hypocrisy.
Sure enough, all the moral pressure Australia could mount on Singapore in 2005 did not spare the life of Nguyen Tuong Van. A local hangman delivered a grotesque warning beforehand, that the condemned could "struggle like chickens" without the proper technique.
Joko has not been as cruel with words, but he has branded the death penalty as "shock therapy" for would-be drug traffickers. He had cleared the way to execute five prisoners on death row before New Year, but quietly allowed that deadline to pass with the eyes of the world on the AirAsia plane crash. Another 20 are apparently set to die this year.
Sukumaran and Chan have exhausted all appeals, and the arbitrary timing of their execution – this month, this year, or the next, with 72 hours all that is formally required by way of notice – is symptomatic of the cruel torture inherent to this system.
It is possible the legal wrangling will go on, the search for last-minute technicalities in a bid to win a reprieve. But this only highlights the problems of Indonesia's judicial system. Locals sometimes complain about the "mafia peradilan", or the justice mafia. As the Jakarta-based Human Rights Watch campaigner Andreas Harsono told me, bribery and corruption is rampant in the judiciary, from the district courts to the Supreme Court, involving police officers, prosecutors, lawyers, and judges.
"It also goes down to the prison where one should pay to be in certain cells … [a] private cell, air conditioned one, to have laptop, to have cell phone," Harsono explains. "It's just an irony to have death sentences in a place where you cannot trust the judiciary."
There are sensitives whenever a country attempts to influence another, cultural and jurisdictional. The prevailing wisdom of officialdom and some country specialists is that quiet advocacy on behalf of Sukumaran and Chan is best, that resorts to "megaphone diplomacy" will only drive Indonesia to assert its sovereign right to make laws.
But the softly-softly approach achieved nothing with Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the clemency appeals left untouched on the former president's desk.
It is time to speak plainly. Australia risks being seen as apathetic about capital punishment in Indonesia unless it vigorously campaigns against it. If this is seen to be interfering, so be it, because the death penalty is wrong, for the condemned Australians or anyone else.
Some Indonesians would undoubtedly resent Australia's advocacy. But many Indonesians will equally be appalled at the practice of the death penalty. In a country where social media campaigns and politics are fiercely intertwined, this might be just the right moment to spark a debate – before an execution date is set.
Otherwise the only certain outcome is when the firing squad pulls the trigger.
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