Going backwards: The death penalty in Southeast Asia

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(Paris) Over the past year, Southeast Asia has witnessed significant setbacks with regard to the abolition of the death penalty, FIDH said in a new report published today, on the occasion of the 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty.

The report, titled Going backwards: The death penalty in Southeast Asia,” provides an update on the status of the death penalty in the region since last year’s World Day. It also provides important recommendations to governments in the region with a view to make genuine and tangible progress towards the abolition of the death penalty for all crimes.

“Too many governments in Southeast Asia lack the vision and political will to eliminate the death penalty – a barbaric practice that has no place in today’s world. It is imperative that all retentionist countries in Southeast Asia immediately declare official moratoria on all executions as an initial step towards the complete abolition of capital punishment.”

Dimitris Christopoulos, FIDH President.

Since October 2015, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore have all carried out executions. It is unknown whether any executions were carried out in Vietnam, where statistics on the death penalty continue to be classified as ‘state secrets.’

In the name of combating drug trafficking, Indonesian President Joko Widodo is rapidly becoming Southeast Asia’s top executioner. The Philippines, which effectively abolished the death penalty for all crimes in 2006, is considering reinstating capital punishment as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s ill-conceived and disastrous ‘war on drugs.’

Slow or no progress towards the complete abolition of the death penalty for all crimes has been observed in Brunei Darussalam, Burma, Laos, and Thailand – countries that have attained, or are close to attaining, the status of de facto abolitionist.

Across retentionist countries in Southeast Asia, a disproportionate number of death sentences continues to be imposed for drug-related offenses. Countries that have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and that continue to impose capital punishment for drug-related offenses are in contravention of their own international legal obligations. Article 6 of the ICCPR reserves the death penalty solely for the “most serious crimes,” a threshold that international jurisprudence has repeatedly stated drug-related offenses do not meet.

In many Southeast Asian countries, governments maintain a high degree of secrecy over information concerning the use of the death penalty. This practice is contrary to international standards on the use of the death penalty. UN jurisprudence has found that the lack of transparency in the application and imposition of the death penalty can result in inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment under Article 7 of the ICCPR and Article 1 of the Convention against Torture (CAT). Such secrecy also contravenes the public’s right to information under Articles 14 and 19 of the ICCPR.

The denial of fair trial rights and due process also remain a major concern in connection with the prosecution of cases involving the death penalty. In July 2016, several inmates facing the firing squad in the latest round of executions in Indonesia alleged that they had been convicted based on confessions obtained through torture.

The 14th World Day Against the Death Penalty is raising awareness about the application of the death penalty for terrorism-related offenses. All Southeast Asian countries retain the death penalty for terrorism. However, the application of such laws is subject to abuse and arbitrary application because governments define this crime in very broad and vague terms. In addition, many alleged violent acts of terrorism do not meet the threshold of the “most serious crimes.”

“The pretext of using the death penalty to fight wars on drugs and terrorism are merely a quick fix for governments who are eager to show they are tough on crime. The reality is that the death penalty has no deterrent effect on the commission of crimes, particularly those that are drug-related or alleged acts of terrorism.”

Florence Bellivier, FIDH Deputy-Secretary General.

FIDH, a member of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP), reiterates its total opposition to the death penalty for all crimes and in all circumstances.

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