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State of the death penalty in Southeast Asia

  • 14 November 2018


The new Malaysian government, which is really just a collection of old Malaysian governments, is determined to change the path of the country. Some of these reforms are largely motivated by spite for the previous prime minister, Najib Razak, but others have been unexpected and extraordinarily progressive for a country hardly known for taking chances. An announcement was made on World Day Against the Death that the next sitting of the parliament will see the death penalty be formally abolished. Will Malaysia's neighbours follow suit?

Legal experts are split on the abolition reform, but agree that despite the announcement and the fanfare it produced little is known on how abolition will come to fruition. With such a wide range of crimes under the death penalty banner, what will sentencing in the new Malaysia look like? And what timeline can be expected, given the government has a diverse suite of policy priorities for its first term.

Malaysian justice has meted out the death penalty for a range of crimes from drug trafficking to child abuse to terrorism with an estimated 1,000 prisoners currently on death row. One case in particular has gripped hearts and minds in Kuala Lumpur. Earlier this year 29-year-old chronically ill Muhammad Lukman was sentenced to death for his purchase and sharing of medicinal marijuana. Like much of Asia, Malaysia is particularly hardline when it comes to drug use and in the eyes of Malaysian law medicinal versus recreation is not a distinction worth making. Lukamn’s lawyers maintain he is a devout Muslim who shared marijuana oil with sick friends who could not afford to procure it themselves.  

Lukman’s death sentence in August was a game changer. His story prompted widespread outrage and the lobbying of lawmakers, including the returned Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, for a review. Interestingly, the new government has also reportedly discussed the benefits of medicinal marijuana. If Malaysia were to legalise marijuana use, it would be the first in the region.

Malaysia's increasingly progressive stance at odds with the rest of Southeast Asia. The Philippines has had a complicated recent history with the death penalty in the years since the fall of the Marcos dictatorship. Abolition has been on the cards and then off again before being officially ended in 2007. But, recent moves by the Duterte administration show that abolition campaigners have to remain vigilant.

President Rodrigo Duterte is no friend of reform or rehabilitation. His disregard for