Monday, September 01, 2008

Seminar on Religious Aspects of Death Penalty

Seminar in Office of National Human Rights Commission 15th, 16th July

This seminar was planned to be a presentation of the points of view expressed in the earlier seminars devoted to Buddhist and Muslim perspectives on the death penalty and to provide a forum for discussion on the relevance of these perspectives to abolition of the death penalty in Thailand. Noteworthy speakers from the earlier seminars were selected to summarise the various religious perspectives, to be followed by a general discussion of the consequences for the movement towards abolition in Thailand. The intended audience were the donor embassies of the project, influential religious leaders in the Bangkok region, representatives of the Government ministries and agencies relating to the death penalty, the media, NGO representatives, academics, and interested members of the public.

The seminar was graciously addressed by His Excellency Dr. Friedrich Hamburger, Ambassador of the European Union who emphasised the universal human interest of the topic and the aspect of human dignity even in the most conspicuous criminal. He recalled the attribution of capital punishment to a divine lawmaker in the beginning of history and the pivotal relegation of the matter to civil authority, except in the Muslim world, by the words of Christ, ‘Leave to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.

He recalled the justification of Punishment under the headings of:

  1. Deterrence; 2. Rehabilitation; 3. Prevention of repeat offence.

In the case of Capital Punishment, 1. was ineffective, 2. was very limited, while 3. might be 100% effective.

However, application of the death penalty is always cruel and degrading. And it is degrading both to the person executed and to the executioner. The degradation extends to every participant in the process of execution, up to the highest level.

His Excellency asked, that given human fallibility, how many mistakes have been made in wrongful execution.

M. Pascal La Deunff, representative of the Embassy of France, also addressed the seminar, recalling that the death penalty had, in practice, been used to punish crimes but also to suppress dissent by minorities and the poor. He pointed to the significant contribution of Robert Badinter who as French Minister of Justice, promoted abolition of the death penalty in France in 1981 by affirming that the human passion to crime cannot be stopped by fear of the death penalty. While some of those condemned are entirely guilty, a system of justice without mistake is not possible. He recalled that the religious prohibition, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ found expression in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights signed in Paris in 1948, ‘Everyone has the right to life’. But the perspective is different.

The Buddhist perspective on the death penalty was presented by the Reverend Phra W. Wesinmethi from Wat Suan Dork, Chiangmai.

He recalled that the mission of Buddhism is to promote happiness and peace among human beings. The Buddha taught that every living thing has a right to life, that even thinking of harming a living being is a mistake. In Buddhist thinking the source of evil is in harmful thought. Harmful thought leads to bad speech, and thence to bad action. Crime cannot be prevented by fear of death, but may be stopped by shame. It is otherwise impossible to stop harmful thought leading to crime. Killing cannot be approved, execution as a legal process is no different from illegal crime. The rejection of killing by Buddhism is uncompromising.

Related to this absolute rejection of capital punishment on Buddhist principles is the belief that any prisoner can change and reform. The often repeated story of the conversion of the killer Angulimala, enshrines the Buddhist teaching; the most notorious killer is capable of reform.

Buddhist belief results in a practical programme of reform to avoid killing:

  1. Develop the virtuous quotient of life, moral practice, fullness of mind, body and speech;
  2. Develop the professional quotient, the ability to earn a living; poverty can lead to a return to crime
  3. Develop the mental quotient, right thought, right speech, and right action
  4. Develop the intelligence quotient; delusion and not nature is the cause of evil.

The way of compassion consists in offering these four ways to the wrongdoer.

In summary, Buddhism combines a total prohibition on killing, which implies a rejection of the death penalty, with a programme of enlightenment which will lead the wrongdoer to reform.

Mr. Withaya Wisethrat, Muslim Centre of Thailand

Islam is not just a religion but a way of life for humanity. The whole human family is descended from Adam. Muslims are those who follow the way of Islam as preached by Mohammad. Islam takes form from the interior of man, extends to the family, the nation, the world. For the Islamic way of life to flourish there is need of regulation and security in society. Sharia is the system of law which is derived from belief. Muslim acceptance of the death penalty is based on the revealed word of Allah as recorded in the Koran which cannot be cancelled. The death penalty is mandated for premeditated homicide, for the adultery of a married person, for abandoning religion, and for spying in time of war. However, the requirements of evidence are strict, there must be four witnesses. Lack of intention can allow release of the prisoner and depends on the wisdom of the judge. Capital punishment is required to ensure the security of society.

But Islam also allows the intervention of mercy, relatives of an innocent victim may pardon the killer if he is truly repentant, and accept restitution and alternative punishment.

But the death penalty is only one part of Muslim law and in Thailand Muslims form a minority. They follow the laws of the State and would not protest if the death penalty were abolished. In fact there are many faults in the administration of Thai justice; the poor and the innocent are often victims. In such a situation it were better that the death penalty be abolished. The same argument was used by Buddhist speakers in a demand that Law accord with morality.

Further reflection on the state of Thai legal practice were presented by Mr. Tanadech Kantachote who graduated in law while imprisoned in Bang Kwang prison. He related cases he had known of wrongful conviction. In one example, police were ordered to make an arrest in a case involving a bomb attack against a police station in Haadyai. They arrested an innocent man who had helped rescue victims of the attack - Mr. Tanadech explained that in the Thai legal system the protestation of innocence of a poor and near illiterate villager is worth little in face of police assertion of guilt. Apart from the police witness there was no other evidence, but the accused was found guilty in the first court. However, the accused had been accompanied at the time of the bombing by his nine year old daughter. The Court of Appeal dismissed the case in the absence of real evidence, by refusing to accept that a person carrying a bomb would have brought with him a nine year old daughter.

Condemned persons are permanently shackled and sleep 20 persons together in a room measuring approximately 3 metres by 4 metres. Those executed are the most unfortunate with little access to legal representation.

He pointed out that the argument favouring the death penalty as a preventive against repeating a crime ignores the fact that repetition of crime occurs in such minor crimes as small robberies, but very rarely in cases of serious crime.

In the current series, no seminar was conducted on the Christian attitude to the death penalty but it was appropriate to include consideration of such an aspect in this seminar devoted to comparison of religious aspects. The speaker was Ms. Sylvie Bukhari de Pontual

President of the International Federation of

Catholic Action for penalty (FIACT)

Ms. Sylvie related the long road followed by Christian believers to a present majority support for abolition. The Christian religion is unique in having a founder who was arrested, accused, tortured, condemned to death, and executed. By reaction, early Christians were for four centuries totally opposed to the death penalty. Finally, as Christians achieved acceptance in the State of Rome they accepted the death penalty in Roman legislation, recognizing the Old Testament approval of capital punishment. It was only in the 13th century that the first voice was raised against capital punishment by a Christian sect, which recalled the words of Jesus Christ, ‘I do not want the death of a sinner…’. The outstanding theologian Thomas Aquinas favoured the death penalty for the protection of society. Rejection to the death penalty grew, and was voiced in the 17th century by George Fox, founder of the Quaker movement, ‘Life is blessed by God’. In the 18th century Caesare Baccaria published an influential work on the concept of punishment, where he stated that the certainty of punishment, not the death penalty, was an effective deterrent.

From that time, beginning with the Grand Duchy of Tuscany in 1786, states began to abolish the death penalty. Today, apart from some evangelical churches who take inspiration from the Old Testament, such as the Southern Baptists in the US, almost all Christians oppose the death penalty. The World Council of Churches and the Catholic Church have made the strongest declarations against Capital Punishment. The clearest statement was made by Cardinal Martino in a speech to the UN General Assembly in 1999, ‘The right to life is a right of a human being’. In Christian thinking moral education and good policing must support legal abolition of the death penalty.

The long history of the growth of Christian opposition to the death penalty illustrates the immense task involved in changing human perception and the need for great patience in its achievement.

Further accounts of Buddhist and Muslim perspectives were offered which will be included in the detailed publication of the contents of this seminar.

Another highlight of the seminar was the talk by M. Michel Forst on International Law relating to the death penalty and the recent vote on a Moratorium in the UNGA. His theme was that the death penalty is a breach of international human rights. He linked the increase in the number of countries choosing abolition, to the development of human rights in the 60 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 60 years ago eight countries had abolished the death penalty, while today 133 countries have done so.

There are two fundamental human rights involved, the right to life, and the right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment. The death penalty is a premeditated killing of a prisoner for the purpose of punishment. As such it is the ultimate denial of the dignity and worth of the human person. Such is the human rights case against the death penalty.

Michel Forst traced the development of human rights standards on the death penalty through a progressive restricting of the number of offences for which the penalty might be imposed. A definitive ruling is given in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ‘sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes’. Further clarification has narrowed this limitation to premeditated homicide. ‘Economic crimes and drug-related offences’ cannot be considered as being ‘most serious crimes’. It is significant that in the Statute of the Treaty of Rome the death penalty is not provided for what are arguably the most heinous crimes of all – genocide and other crimes against humanity.

Regarding the process of abolition, the speaker pointed out that the decision to abolish the death penalty has to be taken by the government and the legislators. This decision does not depend on a majority of the public being in favour of abolition. Nevertheless, statements from religious leaders and other respected public figures can create a moral climate in which legislators may dare to act without the support of majority opinion. The international dimension allows countries to learn from other countries experience.

The majority vote by the United Nations General Assembly on 18th December of last year in favour of a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty carries considerable moral and political weight. It places an obligation on all member states to review their use of the death penalty and is an incentive to work towards abolition.

The final programme of the seminar was a discussion of the status of the movement to abolition in Thailand. It was agreed that the defective state of the Thai justice system is both a strong argument in favour of abolition, but also reason to doubt the effectiveness of life sentencing which would replace the death sentence. Both Buddhists and Muslims agreed on the need for a moral renewal in society as basis for a more just legal system.

It appears that there is massive support for the death penalty, in the belief that it is an effective deterrent of serious crime. Up to 84% of Bangkokians favour capital punishment and more than 80% of Buddhist monks. The foundations of the majority opinion appear to be an unfounded acceptance of capital punishment as an effective deterrent, a culture of authoritarianism, an expectation of vengeance, and little appreciation of mercy and forgiveness.

Steps towards abolition are the effort to limit the application of the death penalty; at present 47 different kinds of crime can incur capital punishment. Life imprisonment must be seen to be real and the problem of violence in society must be tackled. The religious aspect explored in the present seminars has an important role in helping change.

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