"Every human life is precious … It is not just about our criminal justice system … it is about the type of society that we want to build – a society that values every person and every human life, and one that doesn’t give up on its people."
These words were spoken by Singapore MP Laurence Lien in November last year, almost seven years since 25-year-old Melbourne man Van Tuong Nguyen was executed by hanging in Singapore’s Changi prison.
It’s a long way from the harsh and inflexible approach to the death penalty that the Singapore Government took in the lead up to the Melbourne man’s execution on 2 December 2005.
Seven years ago it was unthinkable that the death penalty would even be debated, let alone reviewed and abolished, in some countries in the Asia Pacific. Today, despite some setbacks, it is not only happening but countries close by are joining a worldwide trend towards ending executions.
It is clear from some of the positive steps taken recently in the region that further progress is possible.
At the time the Singapore Government was undeterred by Australia’s bipartisan opposition and the public rallying to save Van Nguyen’s life. The execution went ahead despite appeals by two popes, the European Union and the Australian Government, including 400 parliamentarians signing a petition to save his life.
In Australia candlelit vigils were held across the country. Hundreds of people attended rallies and signed petitions. In Singapore the continuous and courageous work by civil society groups was a sign of a growing vocal opposition to the death penalty.
A group of activists even defied police orders to hold a vigil outside Changi jail in the 24 hours before Van Nguyen was executed. Bolstered by international support and focus on the death penalty in their country, their opposition to executions was reflected in the voice of Sister Susan Chia, leader of the Good Shepherd Sisters.
Chia, who supported Van’s mother over three years, said they were joining “many voices throughout the world in appealing to our leaders to search for alternatives to the death penalty”.
These voices are being heard. Just last week Singapore’s High Court commuted 23-year-old Malaysian national Fabian Adiu Edwin’s death sentence to life imprisonment, the first since Singapore’s parliament passed legal reforms abolishing mandatory death sentences in certain drug trafficking and murder cases in July last year.
While this significant shift in the approach to the death penalty will provide no comfort for the family of Van Nguyen and for many other families whose experience in Singapore has been as devastatingly final, the recent changes signal that Singapore is willing to review capital punishment and may in time come into line with the worldwide trend towards abolition.
The news is less encouraging in Indonesia, where 130 inmates, including Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, are currently on death row. Indonesia ended its four year break from executions in March this year by firing a shot into the heart of Adami Wilson, a 48-year-old Malawian national, in Jakarta. Two months later, three more men were executed. More inmates will be executed this year, which makes the case for supporting Indonesia towards abolition all the more urgent.
In support of their foreign nationals facing the death penalty abroad, Indonesia has reportedly set up a special task force to seek clemency on their behalf. In Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, where many Indonesians have relocated as migrant workers, the Indonesian Government has reportedly intervened with the respective authorities. There is nothing unique in countries seeking clemency on behalf of their citizens, but what is needed by countries in the region is to be consistent in their approach.
For the clemency appeal for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran to be effective, Australia must remain steadfastly opposed to the death penalty in all instances, and publicly condemn executions in the Asia Pacific region, as well as support countries when steps are taken to review the death penalty.
When Malaysia announced recently it was reviewing mandatory death sentences for drug related offences, Australia should have applauded this move, as well as the move by Singapore to abolish mandatory sentencing under certain circumstances.
The taking of any human life is a tragedy, but the worldwide progress against the death penalty is a story of hope. As Australia plays a leading role in our region we can play a part in ensuring that there will one day be an end to these senseless state-sanctioned killings.