"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." - Oscar Wilde

Monday, April 25, 2016

Australia should do more to stamp out capital punishment

The Bali 9 ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were executed by firing squad on the Indonesian island of Nusa Kambangan a year ago next Friday. 

Even a year on, it stands as yet another case of barbarism in the cause of political expediency, lives cut short and the potential for good extinguished for no reason.

The 9-year legal wrangle that surrounded their conviction and incarceration, further complicated by the murky behaviour of authorities, not least the Australian Federal Police, ended with the execution of the pair. Naturally, they had support from those against the death penalty, but their long residency on death row garnered such widespread sympathy and support from Australia and elsewhere that for a while it seemed some good could come from such a groundswell of opposition.

The Bali 9 pair faced execution along with criminals from the Philippines, France, Nigeria, Ghana, Indonesia and, potentially, a mentally ill Brazilian. The 2 Australians' lives were not worth more or less than the fellow condemned or the thousands executed in Indonesia and other countries each year. But when the pair were hurriedly taken to Nusa Kambangan, the barbarity of capital punishment was brutally underscored, hopes for reform were replaced by impotent outrage. Australia recalled its ambassador Paul Grigson in protest. It was unprecedented, but he was back in Jakarta by the following June.

Indonesia's justification for killing offenders in the name of deterrence was exposed as a fraud. To many in the West, the need to punish for punishment's sake remains an Old Testament throwback to an-eye-for-an-eye. It has no place in any modern, civilised, democratic nation. Indonesia's culpability in reviving executions for convicted drug criminals and denying the Australian pair clemency was no better or worse than the policies of China for killing political prisoners or indeed so many states in the US for killing murderers. It is simply wrong.

Six Australians have been executed since 1986 and around the world today there are some dozen or so in jails, detained for serious offences or charged with crimes that carry the death penalty. They include Peter Gardner, the dual Australia-New Zealand citizen caught with 30 kilograms of methamphetamine. This week he is awaiting a Chinese court decision on whether or not he is to face a firing squad.

Generally, Australia could make sure capital punishment is prominent in its broader discussions about human rights and justice issues with countries to our north, not least China. Nearly 90 % of the 1634 people Amnesty International estimates were executed around the world in 2015 occurred in just 3 countries: Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. However, these figures exclude China, where numbers are thought to top 1000 but remain a state secret.

There will always be different opinions on the fundamentals of crime and punishment. Many people favour capital punishment, but we support the contention that having fewer world citizens exposed to the death penalty represents a giant step forward for the common good of humanity.

Australia abolished the death penalty in 1973, accepting that the extinguishing of a human life by the state is repugnant. Clearly, judicial killing can never equal the score; it is the victory of revenge over redemption. The practical argument, too, is persuasive. Death is absolute. It leaves no room for error or doubt, and abuse by unaccountable authoritarian regimes. Information remains limited but Amnesty International claims 150 US prisoners sent to death row since 1973 have later been exonerated. Others have been executed despite serious doubts about their guilt.

By pushing for the abolition of the death sentence everywhere, Australia will make itself a more credible advocate for Australians anywhere.

Source: Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald, April 24, 2016

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