Asia’s killing machinery still runs hot

Michael Backman
The Age
9 November 2004

The impending killing of Melbourne-born Nguyen Tuong Van, 24, by the Singapore Government after he was caught in Changi Airport with a third of a kilogram of heroin highlights one of Asia’s great paradoxes: almost everywhere the rule of law is weak yet the one legal procedure in which it leads the world is execution.

It’s a pertinent matter for business, now corporate social responsibility is in vogue and companies need to be more mindful of the ethics of the regimes of the countries in which they invest.

Every Asian country other than Cambodia has the death penalty. Evidently, Cambodia lost the taste for it after the Pol Pot years. Asia’s governments are active executioners too, accounting for as much as 80 per cent of all the world’s judicial executions.

This contrasts with Europe, where execution is banned and European Union membership requires its abolition. Turkey, for example, abolished the death penalty in 2002 to improve its chances of being admitted to the EU.

But no such enlightenment in Asia. China routinely executes hundreds, sometimes thousands, of its citizens each year. This when it has one of the world’s worst legal systems. There were 27,120 death sentences reported in China’s official media in the 1990s, and more than 18,000 confirmed executions. There are more than 50 crimes punishable by death, including economic crimes such as bribery and corruption.

But, per capita, it is Singapore that is world leader in execution. The annual average number of executions in Singapore in recent years is more than 30. But in absolute numbers Singapore even beat the US in 1991: 76 to 31, even though its population of 4 million is more than 60 times fewer than that of the US. More than 400 people are known to have been hanged in Singapore since 1991. A serious matter you’d think. But when Singapore’s then prime minister was asked last year on BBC television how many people his government had executed so far that year, he didn’t know.

Most executions in Singapore are for drug offences. Possession of half a kilo of cannabis is defined as narcotics trafficking, and carries the death penalty.

In the Netherlands, such possession would probably qualify you for a small-business award. There are 782 coffee shops in the Netherlands that legally sell marijuana and hashish along with coffee, according to the Dutch Justice Ministry.

How do Asian governments kill those that they condemn to death? Executions take place on a Friday in Singapore, before dawn, at Changi Prison, using the “drop” method, as opposed to the “hoisting” method.

The Philippines uses lethal injection. China also occasionally uses lethal injection, but the more usual method is shooting, as in Taiwan and
Vietnam. But whereas Chinese kill by a single bullet to the back of the head, Vietnam and Taiwan use conventional firing squads. Vietnam uses them a lot.

And often in public. Thailand used to use a lone executioner armed with a machine gun. Lethal injections are used now.

India passes death sentences but rarely enforces them. Usually it’s commuted to life imprisonment. However, an execution in West Bengal in August broke a de facto moratorium on executions that had existed since 1997.

Indonesia infrequently carries out the death penalty although it says it intends to execute more in relation to drug cases. An execution was carried out recently in Medan. And prosecutors have indicated that they will seek death for Brisbane’s Schapelle Leigh Corby, who was arrested last month at Bali airport allegedly with 4.1 kilograms of marijuana.

People are sometimes hanged in groups in South Korea. There was one morning in 1997 when 23 people were hanged. But executions ceased from early 1998 to early 2003, when Kim Dae-jung served as president. Kim, a former dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had once been on death row himself.

In Japan, prisoners are only told of their executions (by hanging) hours before they are carried out. Those condemned are prone to wonder if each day is their last. And the short notice denies them the right to see relatives one last time or to consult lawyers.

One would hope that governments that kill would have a sound legal system before doing so. But even Singapore’s rule of law is not all it should be. There is no trial by jury. Judges decide cases, usually acting alone. There are copious laws on how the media should be run but there are unwritten laws, too, on how the news should be covered.

The Government has out-of-bounds topics but then refuses to enshrine in law what those boundaries are. The Government’s use of executions appears to be one of the out-of-bounds topics.

Grumblings are heard too that the law is not applied equally among the races. Around 77 per cent of the population is ethnically Chinese, and it’s sometimes said non-Chinese get harsher punishments. A recent oft-cited case involved an Indian TV presenter who was given a surprisingly stiff jail term for what the judge determined was rape in a case many did not see as quite so clear cut.

Patchy, inconsistent and sometimes not even codified: that is Singapore’s legal system, one of Asia’s best. A rocky platform surely from which to end lives.

%d bloggers like this: