Saturday, September 06, 2014

Will Thailand replace the death penalty with LWOP?

Since the 1970s the US has instituted a new and fearful punishment referred to as LWOP, life without parole. It was meant to replace a sentence of death, and is in fact a sentence of death in another form to capital punishment by gallows, electric chair, gas chamber, or lethal injection. LWOP is a sentence of waiting for death by illness or old age; it mandates no escape from a prison cell other than as a corpse.
Consider the implications of such a punishment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is the foundation of modern society and consists of 30 short affirmations relating to human beings. 22 of those short principles begin with the word “Everyone”, four use an implied equivalent such as “All”, or “Any person”. Besides, there are four prohibitions, for example against slavery or torture that use the negative universal “No one”. Clearly, the map of living established by the consensus of nations, does not envisage that human beings can be divided into two categories, those who are entitled to “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the inalienable rights of all members of the human family[i]”, and those who are non-persons without dignity or rights. And yet there are persons to whom “everyone” or its equivalent does not apply, and who are excluded from the prohibitions which should apply to no one. We may call them “no-ones”, human contradictions which should not, but do exist today[ii].
What is the fate of a “no-one”? A “no-one” has no right, no role, no function, other than to wait for death. Their gender is irrelevant; we may call them “it”. A “no-one” must be placed in isolation from humans, even from other “no-ones”, since any communication between them would be meaningless and could cause trouble. Ideally, the “no-ones” should be supplied with the basic food to maintain life, delivered automatically without any human contact. Their holding cell need not have any amenity or window, other than the bare necessity to preserve life. Since some measure of exercise is necessary, a door is opened automatically once a week to allow them solitary exercise in a bare enclosure. When the allotted time ends a voice orders them to return to their cell and the door closes.
Since there is no rehabilitation, no education of any kind, no entertainment, there is no need of prison staff with skills or responsibilities in human relations. It is best that the prison administration be entrusted to private companies who can handle meaningless services. Best too if the prison is underground as there is need only of entrance, and an exit of corpses, with service access for staff and supplies.
Today, the prison population of those condemned to LWOP, the “no-ones” in the US exceeds 50,000. There is no use in asking whether the “no-ones” deserve their punishment or not. Originally, intended as a replacement for the death penalty, LWOP is now extended even to being a punishment for petty crime, under such policies as the ‘three strike” penal policy, when three minor felonies may lead to the most extreme sentence ever devised.  Repeat petty criminals, or even juniors, may be subject to LWOP.
Will Thailand take this path of choosing the inhumanity of LWOP? Unfortunately, there is a great danger that it will. There is also the hidden threat revealed in the US experience. Once LWOP is introduced, it is extended to being a punishment for lesser crimes with the reasoning that not being the death penalty, its application is more easily accepted. The other factor which emerges is that once accepted as part of the legal code it is next to impossible to repeal, lacking the emotional resistance attached to the death penalty, and justified by an appeal to the absolute safety of society. Note also that in practice a sentence of LWOP is handed down without the protection of extra attention to legal certainty that should accompany passing of a death sentence.
There is a danger that a policy copied from the US, the self-proclaimed icon of human rights, will be uncritically adopted. The official proposal for abolition of the death penalty in Thailand adds the codicil, “and its replacement by life imprisonment”. But the implication is that this intends LWOP, as an assurance of absolute safety from repeat crime. Ominously, the replacement is accompanied by the suggestion of a large number of maximum security prisons. They would be located in remote areas implying a complete isolation of their “no-one” population. The concept that the prisons would be administered by commercial companies implies the absence of government responsibility for programmes of rehabilitation or humane management.
The result is a division between “everyone”, and a population of “no-ones” with no human characteristic.
Does Thailand not have the humanity and understanding to reject this awful choice?   

[i] Preamble: Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948
[ii] Significantly, a US prosecutor admits that he can recall the names of all those he prosecuted who were condemned to death, but cannot remember the name of a single one condemned to LWOP. See “Life without Parole: America’s New Death Penalty”, New York University Press, Chapter 5, 2012

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