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Barrister Julian McMahon speaks in Canberra on the death penalty

Julian McMahon
Julian McMahon
As Australian drug trafficker Van Tuong Nguyen was in a Singapore cell facing the end of his life, one of his lawyers, Julian McMahon, offered him some solace in words written by Sir Thomas More as he awaited his own execution almost 500 years earlier.

Mr McMahon, a Melbourne barrister who was a national finalist in the 2016 Australian of the Year awards for his human rights work, is due to speak on Wednesday night at the Saint Thomas More Forum in Canberra.

While representing Van Nguyen, who was hanged in Singapore in 2005, Mr McMahon referred back to the case of Sir Thomas, the Lord Chancellor of England, beheaded in 1535 after standing firm in his Catholic faith and refusing to swear that the Crown had supremacy over the Church.

"In the last year of Van Nguyen's life, he had become much more interested in his Catholic faith so I had actually given him copies of a few pages written by Thomas More while More was in his cell awaiting his execution," Mr McMahon said.

"And those few pages of reflection on how to think about your imminent death, how to think about the people who were about to kill you – they were very gentle and wise words."

Mr McMahon said there was still much to learn from the case of More, who was made a saint by the Catholic church in 1935.

"He's a fascinating character to study on the question of conscience and the right to silence and the clashes between truth, the power of the state and, in that instance, the failure of the rule of law," he said.

Mr McMahon has been working on death penalty cases for 13 years and is the president of Reprieve Australia, which is dedicated to ending executions around the world.

He represented Bali Nine members Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, both convicted of drug smuggling, and was within earshot as they were gunned down by a firing squad in a field on an Indonesian island in April last year.

Mr McMahon said the final meeting with his clients facing the death penalty was never easy.

"Firstly, it's very difficult but, secondly, we lawyers are there as professional assistants and that fact makes it easier for us to be detached and support the client and family," he said.

"In the last visit of the Chan and Sukumaran families with their son and brother, although it was extraordinarily difficult, there was both signs of profound familial love and support.

"Everybody knew when they separated at that moment, when they were peeled apart, Myuran and Andrew, still had to cope with the next 10 hours and in order to help them cope, everybody understood that each person there had to be strong."

He said the number of countries who had the death penalty had steadily fallen since World War II, with fewer than 30 now carrying out executions.

"Some of these countries are slowly improving. For instance, Singapore used to execute an enormous number of people, now it executes very few, so that's a positive change," he said.

"Other countries like Pakistan and Iran and Saudi Arabia are rapidly going backwards and descending into large-scale executions. And it's like any other cancer across the world – sexual abuse of children or women, destruction of the environment, slavery, which is a rampant problem in today's world – each generation has to fight these things or they re-appear as cancers.

"We should speak the truth to [these countries] and we should demand better from them and that includes our close allies, ranging from America to China right through to countries in the Middle East which show such little regard for human life."

Mr McMahon said the death penalty "brutalises all involved".

"It debases the society which kills, that consciously plans to kill someone rendered helpless," he said.

"It perpetuates violence and a disrespect for life, it removes all hope of remorse and rehabilitation. These days it's always political.

"It's just a delusion to call 'killing' justice when jail is enough punishment. We should never punish more than is necessary."

Mr McMahon said it was impossible for him to sit back and do nothing, even when taking on cases that appeared hopeless.

"Lots of people maintain an interest in issues which need an active engagement and at times it's easy and at times it's hard,'' he said.

"It's just part of my professional life. I had a very privileged education and I'd rather do something useful with it than play computer games."

Source: The Canberra Times, Megan Doherty, Feb. 24, 2016

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