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The Executioner Calls - The Death Penalty in Asia
The Asian Crime Century briefing seventeen
In 1983, during a House of Commons debate of the reintroduction of the death penalty in the UK, former Prime Minister Edward Heath framed the key moral dilemma:
“One of my hon. Friends said on the radio that if no one else is prepared to hang people he is quite prepared to do the job himself [HON. MEMBERS: "Which one?"] I ask him a rather different question. Because of his views, is he prepared to be hanged by mistake? I am not asking my hon. Friend to reply on the spur of the moment. I shall let him give due consideration to the problem before he finally makes up his mind.” (Hansard, House of Commons, 13 July 1983)
Execution is a mistake that cannot be made twice, but many countries around the world, and notably in Asia, retain the death penalty as the ultimate means of punishment for certain crimes.
The death penalty is not unique to Asia, and far more executions are carried out in the Middle East. It cannot also be labelled as a ‘non-Western’ practice as the death penalty exists in law in the USA and is practiced in many states. The issue of the death penalty in Asia has been in the public eye after a recent execution in Singapore. This has raised the moral question of right or wrong for the death penalty, and provoked a strong reaction from the Singapore government in defence of their own right to decide what is best for their population.
However, the debate is important not only for moral reasons but also to question the logic of reasons given by governments for continuation of the death penalty and its impact on crimes. In the West, the death penalty has largely been perceived as an ultimate punishment for crime and usually reserved for the most serious crimes, such as murder. Other crimes such as rape, terrorism, and killing a police officer also arouse strong emotional responses and demands for the death penalty. In the Middle East and in some other Muslim countries the death penalty is derived from Sharia law and can be applied for apostasy from Islam, adultery, witchcraft, homosexuality, murder, rape, and publishing pornography.
In Asia, although the death penalty is usually applied for the most serious crimes, there is also a strong focus on executions for trafficking illegal drugs which reflects the origin of most of the world’s supply of heroin and opium from the region. The death penalty applies to drug related offences in Brunei, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam.
The logic of use of the death penalty for illegal drugs offences is that drug trafficking causes immense harm to society and that the death penalty is a deterrent. However, drug trafficking clearly continues to take place as there is a thriving illegal drugs trade across the world. The relevant question should instead be does the death penalty deter the consumption of illegal drugs? That requires a great deal of data, but clearly there are huge drug addiction problems in the USA but in Singapore there are not. That does not of course mean that the reason for this difference is the death penalty (correlation is not necessarily causation).
On Wednesday 26th April 2023 at dawn, the Singapore authorities hanged 46 year old Tangaraju Suppiah after he was convicted of "abetting by engaging in a conspiracy to traffic" about 1kg (35oz) of cannabis from Malaysia to Singapore in 2013. Although he was not in possession of any cannabis or other illegal drugs, the Singapore authorities have stated that “Tangaraju was involved in a case with two others, where his phone numbers were used to communicate with the two others involved in the delivery of the cannabis”, and that “the High Court found Tangaraju’s evidence unbelievable, and found that he was communicating with the two others and was the one coordinating the delivery and receipt of cannabis to himself, through the two others.”
The Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs also stated that “The Misuse of Drugs Act provides for the death penalty if the amount of cannabis is more than 500 grammes. 1017.9 grammes is more than twice the capital threshold, and sufficient to feed the addiction of about 150 abusers for a week.” This is puzzling. The US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) states that “people who use cannabis have about a 10% likelihood of becoming addicted.” Given this statement and also that cannabis is now a legally available product for medical use in around 30 countries and decriminalised for recreational use in a small number countries, the focus on deterring trafficking of cannabis because of the danger of addiction seems to be out of line with the broader consensus in most societies.
The Singapore authorities responded strongly to the critical comments from Sir Richard Branson, who wrote that “Killing those at the lowest rungs of the illicit drug supply chain, often minorities living in poverty, is hardly effective in curbing an international trade worth hundreds of billions every year.” The Singapore Ministry for Home Affairs responded by saying that Branson was incorrect, stating that “in the four-year period after the introduction of the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 500 grammes of cannabis, there was a 15 to 19 percentage point reduction in the probability that traffickers would choose to traffic above the capital sentence threshold” and that “Studies have also found that drug traffickers deliberately restricted the amount of drugs they carried in order not to exceed the capital sentence threshold. They were willing to risk imprisonment, but not the death penalty.”
The Death Penalty Across the World
Amnesty International monitors the death penalty and executions and recorded at least 2,052 death sentences in 56 countries in 2021, which was an increase of 39% from the 1,477 reported in 2020. Amnesty reported that at least 28,670 people were known to be under sentence of death globally at the end of 2021. Executions were carried out by beheading, hanging, lethal injection, or shooting.
(Source: Amnesty International)
By 2021, 55 countries retained the death penalty in law, 28 countries retain but do not practice the death penalty, 8 countries retain it only for serious crimes, and 108 countries do not allow the death penalty by law. The map of the countries retaining the death penalty shows a broad swathe across Asia and the Middle East, but also including the USA where in 2021 there were 11 executions in 6 states and 18 death sentences in 7 states.
Most executions were carried out in China, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria – in that order – four of these countries being in the Middle East and only one in Asia. China classifies executions as “state secrets” but is assessed to execute the most people, believed by Amnesty International to be in the thousands each year. Excluding China, 80% of all executions took place in Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia.
The number of legal executions in countries in Asia is relatively low when China is excluded from the data. There is no verifiable data from North Korea, although executions are “likely to be used at a sustained rate” according to Amnesty International. Vietnam also maintains secrecy regarding executions, although 78% of all known death sentences imposed are for drug related offences.
According to data from Amnesty International, the countries in Asia with death sentences are not those that carry out most executions. In India in 2021, 144 death sentences were handed out to convicted criminals but none were executed. Similarly, in both Indonesia and Pakistan over a hundred people in each country were sentenced to death that year but no executions were carried out. Japan hanged three people in 2021 after a hiatus of 24 months. Only Bangladesh, China, Japan, North Korea, and Vietnam carried out executions in 2021. However, the number of reported death sentences (which is inevitably under-reported because of the lack of data from China, North Korea, and Vietnam) in Asia that year increased, largely due to reported increases in Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Vietnam.
In China the death penalty is applicable to 46 criminal offences, including non-lethal crimes. Amnesty International believes that most executions in China are for crimes of murder and drug related offences. Prior to 1997 almost all executions in China were carried out by shooting, with reports that families were charged for the cost of the bullet which they had to pay to ensure that they could collect the ashes of the cremated victim. After 1997, the Chinese authorities started to use lethal injection for executions, which is certainly more costly than a rifle bullet. As many local authorities would not want to spend money to send a prisoner to Beijing, the authorities have used special converted police vans that contain a small execution chamber that visit local townships to carry out executions by lethal injection.
The moral question – Killing for revenge or punishment?
The UK parliamentary debate in 1983 involving Ted Heath asking if his colleague was prepared to be hanged by mistake involved the question put to the vote which was “That this House favours the restoration of the death penalty for murder.” The unlawful killing of another person is regarded in most legal systems as the most serious criminal offence, and hence the periodic calls in some jurisdictions such as the UK for the restoration of the death penalty. This approach to the death penalty is killing for revenge, to punish what society considers to be the most heinous crimes.
However, in Singapore in April 2023 a man was executed after being convicted by a court in 2018 for trafficking 1,017.9 grams (around 2.2 pounds) of cannabis. This approach is killing as a punishment, and as a supposed deterrent to those who would commit crimes. The large scale executions in China also do not seem to be an effective deterrent to crime as there seems to be no end to criminality in the country, and so we could assume that in the local cultural context the death penalty is considered as a punishment.
We all ask if our own governments are doing the right thing so that there is a continual alignment between those who govern and the moral expectations of those whom they govern in every society. The question of capital punishment is one that should be put to governments regularly to question f they are doing the right thing that meets the expectations of their society. Ted Heath spoke most eloquently on the subject in 1983:
“When one considers what has happened in the few states of the United States that have restored capital punishment, one realises the growth in the influence of the media over the past 20 years. It is seen in the horrifying stories that appear before, during and after an execution, especially when men plead for death, which shows that death is not for them a deterrent. I believe that the impact on people is terrible.”
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