Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Decider who Failed

On 26th June the vote of 78 years old Justice Anthony Kennedy was decisive in legalising marriage between persons of the same gender in the US. On 29th June the vote of the same Justice was decisive in rejecting a plea to the Supreme Court to end the death penalty in the US.
The persistence of the US in applying the death penalty, in the company of China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq, is one of the human rights mysteries of this world, when countries embracing liberal democracy are foremost in its rejection. Democracy and humanism, including an absolute respect for human life, go hand in hand.
The horror of execution is shown by the choice of method. In the past it was considered necessary that execution would take place with the extreme pain of crucifixion, impalement, burning at the stake, or other monstrous tortures invented to inflict the maximum of pain. But the lust for pain lessened and the search began for a painless way to execute criminals, acknoledging that death was the ultimate penalty, and any accompanying torture was meaningless. In its day, the guillotine was welcomed. In one account it was said that the condemned would feel the blade only like the brush of a feather. Or a criminal was killed by firing squad, mimicking the so called honourable death of a soldier. In recent years lethal injection is chosen as an almost medical procedure to induce eternal sleep. But experience of botched executions, of injections administered by executioners with rudimentary medical training, such as that of Clayton Cockett who died in 45 minutes of obvious torment proved otherwise. We realise today that all our supposedly painless killings are little different from the horrific burning at the stake of former days.
In 1996, 76% of US respondents supported capital punishment; today only 56% agree. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court Justice who supported homosexual marriage, persisted in supporting the death penalty.

Comment: "Thailand is a follower, not a leader", a remark made to me by a Buddhist monk. Decisions made in the US on human rights issues are still considered normative by Thai leaders. It is unlikely that Justice Anthony Kennedy is aware of the far reaches of his vote in influencing weak minded leaders elsewhere. It is a mystery that in a Buddhist kingdom, the prime tenet of Buddhism against killing is spurned. But that is how it is. The decision of a wavering US judge has greater influence on moral decision than the dictate of the Buddha!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Death Penalty in Asia, no steps forward, many steps backwards.


The case of Pakistan: 150 executions in 6 months — Pakistan’s race to kill.

Many may have been offered clemency if they could pay the required bribe or blood money.
Pakistan has executed over 150 people since a seven-year moratorium was lifted on state executions just six months ago. If we continue at this pace, we will quickly surpass China, North Korea, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the number of executions carried out by the state this year. It is not only the pace of executions that is alarming, it is the fact that many of these cases are marred by corruption, torture and a flagrant disregard for international human rights standards.
A recent case was that of Aftab Bahadur, a Christian man who was accused of murder when he was just 15 years old. His confession was extracted after allegedly enduring prolonged torture, which involved being burnt by cigarettes and having his fingernails removed. Aftab Bahadur was hanged on June 10 despite calls by thousands of concerned individuals, human rights organizations, Christian leaders, and even the United Nations to grant him a reprieve. Shafqat Hussain’s story is similar. He was also sentenced when he was a juvenile, and his confession too was allegedly extracted under torture. Shafqat Hussain was arrested along with several others for the same crime. According to reports, while the others were freed after paying a 80,000 rupees (US$786) bribe, Shafqat was not because he did not possess the funds. Doubts about his guilt have led to the postponement of his sentence four times, but he has yet to be exonerated.
While Pakistan is racing to execute people, most of the rest of the world is moving in the opposite direction. In fact, nearly two-thirds of all countries have abolished the death penalty due to the growing belief that it is cruel, inhuman, degrading, discriminatory and ineffective in deterring crime. In the US, where the death penalty exists in 32 out of 50 states but is practiced in only a few, stories of innocent people being sentenced to death periodically surface. The Innocence Project, an organization dedicated to reforming the US justice system, has successfully exonerated over 300 people, some of whom had been sentenced to death, largely through the use of DNA testing — a facility not readily accessible here. In fact, since 1973, 154 people have been freed from death row in the US after spending years in prison because their guilt could not be proven beyond reasonable doubt.
If the US justice system, which many would cite as being one of the most robust, can make so many mistakes, one can only imagine how many wrongful convictions there have been in Pakistan where corruption plagues every level of the state’s structure, particularly the police.
Application of death penalty is inherently flawed, with members of marginalized groups far more likely to receive death sentences.  In the US, you are three times more likely to face execution if you are African American than if you are white. In Pakistan, among the marginalized are members of minority communities some of whom have been sentenced to death for allegedly committing blasphemy. While more Muslims have received the death penalty for allegedly committing blasphemy, minority communities feel themselves at far greater risk because of their religious, caste and class identity. Despite this, many in Pakistan blindly support the death penalty because they believe it deters crime and is sanctioned by religion. Not only does this overlook the countless studies, which prove that states that apply the death penalty do not have lower murder rates, it mistakenly assumes the state acts in a manner that is fair and just. Interestingly, many of those who support the death penalty do not trust the state with their alms or even their tax money due to fears of rampant corruption, but yet they trust it with deciding the gravest of matters — that of life and death.
There are more than 8,000 people who are counting the days till they will be called to the gallows. Many of these people were likely tortured in order to extract their confessions, some when they were children. Many may have been offered clemency if they could pay the required bribe or blood money. Many were probably the victims of some personal enmity on the part of the accusers. Many are mentally challenged or ill. And many more were just the most convenient and vulnerable suspects who could be found at the time.
The state has taken a respite from executions for the holy month of Ramadan. This represents a small window of opportunity for the Pakistani public to reflect on the effectiveness of the death penalty as it is applied today — by a severely broken and corrupt justice system.

Comment: Asian countries tend to be followers, not leaders. We watch each other carefully; when one moves we all move. Above all, this is true of the death penalty. Countries in the region shuffle along, always hesitant to take the ultimate step of abolition. When the Philippines took the unusual step of abolition, the others reflected that the move was influenced by Philippines non-asian adherence to Catholicism. A Thai senator remarked to me, referring to Philappine addiction to asassination killings, that Philippines doesn't need the death penalty as they shoot each other. However, backward steps are more easily taken. Like India, its rejected twin Pakistan had begun a moratorium on the death penalty. And like India, it took the step backwards. Where does that leave Thailand, now approaching a de facto moratorium, the ultimate alternative to choice?

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Last Monday Saudi Arabia beheaded a 100th condemned criminal this year

Saudi Arabia carries out the death penalty by the primitive and barbaric method of beheading with a sword. But no news media in Saudi Arabia reports the public execautions. A wave of the hand discourages local media. Expensive subscriptions to foreign media limit comment abroad.
Thus they maintain the friendship of countries which are often loud in condemnation of such inhumane actions.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Appeal of Serge Atlaoui rejected

On 22nd June, the Administrative Court of Jakarta rejected the appeal of Serge Atlaoui, a French national, against the death penalty dating from 2007.
A welder by trade he was accused of installing industrial machines in an ectasy laboratory, which he claimed to believe was an acrylic factory. When eight others were executed in April, he was granted right of appeal on the basis that President Widodo had not examined his dossier before ordering his execution.
During the first Asian Congress on Abolition of the Death Penalty in Kuala Lumpur, 11 - 12th June, Indonesian commentators claimed that the recent spate of executions of foreign nationals was motivated by a political agenda of the President, and could not be justified as a deterrent in solving Indonesia's drug problems.
It may be expected that execution will not take place during the month of Ramadan, allowing further representations on a case which has incurred world wide protest.

The UN Human Rights Council rejects the death penalty for drug related cases. One may also argue that the repeated delays amount to unacceptable mental torture of the accused.

Saturday, June 06, 2015

In what sense was justice satisfied?

On 3rd June, in Huntsville, Texas, Lester Bower, was executed by lethal injection. He was 67 years of age, and had spent 30 years on death row.
The title "Death Row" is a creation of the US. It is unfortunate that this name, killing hope for those who are there located, is coming into use elsewhere in the world. Indeed, it would more appropriately be named "Life Row", to encourage the condemned who spend years fighting and pleading for life. Lester Bower is the oldest and longest death row Texan detainee in modern times.
He always denied the murder of 4 of which he was accused and made many appeals for a new judgement. His last appeal was rejected 2 hours before his execution. His last words were:
"Much has been written about this case; not all of it has been the truth"

Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Nebraska, not a victory for Abolition

State of Nebraska, commutes death by poisoning to death by accelerated old age

In a mock victory for abolition, Nebraska, on 26th May, substituted the horror of the death penalty, by the comparable horror of LWOP, death in isolation and without hope, in a prison environment that takes away hope, the final value of a human life. Abolitionists have been rightly blamed for accepting life imprisonment until death as an alternative to the death penalty, and to abolition itself.
But now the practice is known and understood. Hope was the final item in Pandora's Box of Evils,  and its denial is now seen for what it is, a final evil. LWOP is meaningless, the ultimate cruelty.

Nebraska abolished death by lethal injection by 30 votes to 19. There were 10 prisoners on death row, but they still had hope; the last execution in Nebraska was in 1997. Now there are 10 prisoners on LWOP without any hope. The pattern is that over the years their visitors cease to come, they have nothing to say, no message to convey. Even their attornies will forget their names. Why care for them? they will age quickly in an inhuman condition. They will die unknown as if they never existed.
Truly, they no longer exist.
29 other states are at a loss of what to do, as the US struggles to find chemicals to kill the condemned; Oklahoma is toying with the idea of asphyxiating the condemned with nitrogen.
"The Horror! The Horror!", Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad