Activists want it abolished, victims want the culprits to be punished. Where do we draw the line?
As she passed the last 15 milestones of her life, the woman wept. The sobs were audible, but there were no tears. She had nothing more to lose.
For days on death row, she had cried her head off. And until her last breath, she had maintained that the drug she had been caught with belonged to her boyfriend.
But both of them were hanged, she in Kajang Women’s Prison and he in Taiping.
“It was quite sad, but what to do? You commit the crime, you incur the penalty,” says the man who was with her until the end, a former executioner who wanted to be known only as AK.
Cases like these have raised the question: should the mandatory death penalty be abolished? In fact, should the death penalty be abolished altogether?
This is a difficult question.
Most victims – and their families – want the perpetrators to pay with their lives. An eye for an eye, they say.
Others say the state does not need the burden of having to feed, clothe and house the prisoner for decades. Even the drapes are expensive. The hangman’s noose alone costs around RM6,000.
But there are also those who think the death penalty is abhorrent. It is an irreversible act.
If, by chance, a hanged man later turns out to be innocent, what recourse is there for him or his family?
There’s this story circulating on WhatsApp about George Stinney Jr, the youngest person on death row in the 20th century in the United States.
He was only 14 when he was executed in an electric chair.
Despite an alibi, he was found guilty of murdering two white girls, whose bodies were found near his home.
After 81 days in jail, boy, whose parents were denied access, was electrocuted; he had 5,380 volts of electricity in his head.
But 70 years later, his innocence is finally proven. The judge who cleared him in 2014 said he received a cruel and unusual sentence.
Those who call for the abolition of the death penalty would agree. Amnesty International, for its part, describes the death penalty as cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.
The state, he says, should not take it upon itself to kill anyone, regardless of the offense.
“So many people have been executed, but the murders and the drug trade have not stopped. So the death penalty is not effective,” he says.
Even the UN Human Rights Committee asserts that “the death penalty cannot be reconciled with full respect for the right to life”.
But there is another side to the coin. Al Jazeera reported the case of four-year-old Nurul Hanim and his younger brother, one-year-old Mohamad Hafiz, who were stabbed to death in their bed in 2019.
Their parents, Idris and Shila, are still reeling from their loss and want the murderer hanged.
“My friends and I all want him dead,” Idris says. “But if there is no death penalty in Malaysia…if he is free and comes back…we can also murder him.”
An eye for an eye makes the world blind, as Mahatma Gandhi said. Ending the death penalty could cause people to take matters into their own hands.
In April, Malaysian Nagaenthran Dharmalingam was executed at Changi Prison in Singapore.
It is said that he had learning disabilities and a low IQ, and the law states that the disabled should not be put to death.
But the Singapore government brushed off the disability claims and hanged him anyway.
The Malaysian government tried to prevent the execution and has now agreed in principle to abolish the mandatory death penalty. Instead, judges will have the discretion to decide the appropriate sentence.
But will this solve the problems? Many still think it’s unfair that drug traffickers who destroy thousands of lives and murderers can be allowed to roam free after serving a prison sentence.
Another executioner, who wanted to be known as RS, is among those who think so.
The mandatory death penalty is not arbitrary, he insists.
These convicts have gone through at least three courts, and even appealed to the Pardons Board.
They are unlikely to be innocent. “In my experience, most convicts eventually come to terms with their guilt and are ready to die,” he says.
Many of them are brutal murderers; some of them raped, killed and maimed their victims.
“There was one who had a bakery with an oven. He burned his victims in the oven. And he also baked his bread there.
“Imagine, people were eating bread from an oven where others had been cremated!
“These victims never had a chance. The culprits must be made to pay and the sentence must fit the crime,” says RS.
He has another solution. If the government wants to abolish the mandatory death penalty, he says, we should restore the jury system.
Giving the discretion to the judge alone may not solve the problem. After all, judges are also human. They can be influenced by personal feelings or even religious beliefs.
Some may be against killing another person and others may prefer the ‘diya’ system we are talking about – a system where the convicted murderer can pay a certain amount of money to escape punishment.
A jury, however, can be more demanding. After all, several people from various backgrounds will decide the punishment. The judge can still have a say.
This way we can probably be more certain that there is no doubt about the guilt of the condemned.
Much, of course, will depend on the quality of the jurors. And in Malaysia, that could be another problem.