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Commonwealth death tally

The nations of the Commonwealth are indebted to Britain for many things, but one unfortunate legacy that 37 of the 54 Commonwealth countries owe to former British rule is the death penalty. Of those Commonwealth countries that retain the death penalty as part of their criminal code, seven have carried out executions in recent years: Bangladesh, Botswana, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, Pakistan and Singapore.

Singapore is one of the world’s leading executioners, with more than 400 prisoners having been hanged there since 1991. With a population of just four million, this gives the Singapore government the dubious title of having the highest rate of execution of any country in the world.

The Singapore Penal Code provides for a mandatory death sentence for a broad range of different offences, including murder, attempted murder and 20 different drug offences. In such cases, the criminal court is deprived of any discretion to weigh the evidence in order to consider the circumstances in which the crime was committed. Resultant decisions are often observed to be arbitrary and disproportionate to the crime. This is certainly not a legacy of the British courts which have maintained a reputation over a long period of time of giving the accused a fair trial and a transparent process of investigating criminal actions and imposing criminal sanctions.

Singapore’s enthusiasm for putting a noose around the neck of criminal offenders now marks it out for special attention in the worldwide community. The United Nations and the European Union have both raised their concerns in international forums, such as a recent session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The Singapore government’s official response was simply: ‘The death penalty is primarily a criminal justice issue, and therefore is a question for the sovereign jurisdiction of each country … the right to life is not the only right, and … it is the duty of societies and governments to decide how to balance competing rights against each other.’

It is clear that the right to life is not the only right, but in most societies it is now recognised as an absolute one, against which other rights are to be balanced. The right to have private property, to accumulate wealth, to build a prosperous society, and to defend one’s privacy and independence are all to be balanced by a deeper, more abiding right to life.

In those Commonwealth countries that are actively executing their own citizens and foreign nationals, it has become clear that those who lose their lives to the power of the state represent the most vulnerable, marginal, economically deprived members of that society. When you consider the case studies of those who have been executed by the Singapore government in recent years, this becomes quite clear.

Many Australians were awakened to this fact when an Australian national, Nguyen Tuong Van, found himself on death row in Changi Prison. The imposition of a mandatory death sentence was widely recognised as unjust in this particular case. Moreover, as was clearly attested by his honourable legal representatives, this young Australian had admitted his guilt, co-operated with authorities in Singapore and Australia and had so much to offer, were his right to life to be acknowledged by the Singapore government.

The voices of so many Australian people fell on the deaf ears and hard heart of the Singapore government during the final months. Australian government officials and representatives constantly reported that they had engaged in numerous private negotiations and representations with the Singapore government. With several weeks to go before the execution occurred on 2 December, both the Australian Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister suggested that they had done all that was possible. Many in Australia would have liked to hear a clear statement from the Prime Minister that he opposed capital punishment and the execution of this young Australian.

While many Australian people remain divided on the question of capital punishment, we can rejoice in the fact that in this country there is public debate about the issue. In Singapore, where the media is under such tight government control, little if anything is mentioned in the popular press, and only occasionally does a state-sanctioned killing get reported.

How can this matter be raised in the public forum so that citizens of Singapore have the opportunity of reflecting on different perspectives on such a critical moral and ethic issue, away from the media control imposed by such a repressive political regime? The Commonwealth Games provide such an opportunity, with large numbers of visitors from countries that still sanction death by hanging expected in Melbourne at this time.

One of the most inappropriate preoccupations of Olympic and Commonwealth Games is the so-called medal tally. How one could ever compare the cumulative performances of athletes, in terms of gold, silver and bronze medals, from such a broad range of Commonwealth countries is far from clear. The recognition of individual performances by individual athletes is to be commended. The odious comparisons made between countries of such diverse population sizes and economic prosperity make it a ridiculous activity, which only countries like Australia, New Zealand and England seem to enjoy.

Instead, perhaps the spectators attending the Games from those Commonwealth countries that persist with the state-sanctioned hanging of human beings might be moved to deeper reflection by the public presentation of a death tally, indicating the number of lives lost by hanging in the previous four years. Such a demonstration would lead us all to a deeper appreciation of the common value that many Australians attach to all human life.

Peter Norden sj is policy director of Jesuit Social Services and pastor at St Ignatius Church in Richmond. He is also convener of the Victorian Criminal Justice Coalition and an adjunct professor at RMIT University in Melbourne.


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