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Malaysia among minority of countries using death penalty for drug-related offences as global executions peak

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Last year 2023 saw the highest number of executions recorded globally in almost a decade, Amnesty International said as it released its annual report on the global use of the death penalty, with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and the US being spotlighted as the top executioners in 2023.

“We recorded a total of 1,153 executions globally in 2023. This harrowing figure not only marks a 31% increase from the previous year, but is also the highest figure that we have recorded since 2015,” said Katrina Jorene Maliamauv, the executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia.

The global total does not include the thousands of executions believed to have been carried out in China, which keeps its figures secret.

“Paradoxically, while executions were at their highest since 2015, the number of countries that carried out executions in 2023 was the lowest on Amnesty’s records, signifying that these countries are increasingly becoming isolated in their continued use of this cruel punishment.”

All eyes on Malaysia

Malaysia’s reforms to its mandatory death penalty laws in 2023 earned the country international praise – including during the 45th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva last January – for taking a critical step towards full abolition of the death penalty.

The re-sentencing process, established last year to grant the Federal Court temporary jurisdiction to review the mandatory death sentences of those who had exhausted the ordinary judicial process, has already resulted in a significant decrease in the number of death sentences upheld.

Official figures shared in Parliament in March 2024 indicated that the Federal Court maintained the death penalty in 12 out of 134 cases it reviewed since November 2023 – all death sentences upheld were for murder.

READ MORE:  Extend moratorium on executions

Judicial sentencing discretion has also resulted in fewer death sentences imposed and upheld as part of the ordinary judicial process. As recorded by Amnesty International’s monitoring during the first six months of judicial sentencing discretion, the death penalty was imposed in an alarming 44% of recorded cases before the High Courts whereas this percentage reduced to 21% and 25% before the Court of Appeal and Federal Court respectively.

However, in 2023, Malaysia still remained in the minority of countries that retained the death penalty and in the even more isolated group of 11 countries known to have imposed this cruel punishment for drug-related offences.

Death penalty for drug-related offences

Alarmingly, at least 20 people were sentenced to death in Malaysia last year for drug-related offences.

Amnesty International opposes the death penalty under any circumstances as a violation of human rights; it is of additional concern that these offences do not meet the threshold of “most serious crimes” to which the death penalty must be restricted under international human rights law and standards.

“Not only is the continued sentencing to death for drug-related offences in Malaysia unlawful under international law and standards; it also disproportionately affects those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, already facing intersecting forms of discrimination.”

In 2023, executions for drug-related offences were recorded in China, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Singapore. Vietnam was also very likely to have carried out such executions, but information remained unavailable.

Distressingly, all five executions carried out in Singapore in 2023 were for drug trafficking, and several Malaysian nationals remained on death row in the country for this offence.

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“The continued use of the death penalty for drug-related offences is abominable. We urgently need a paradigm shift in our criminal justice responses and move away from this punitive framework.

“Malaysia has shown that reforms to death penalty laws in our region are possible and must lead the way for other countries to end the death penalty once and for all. This includes neighbouring Singapore, where drug related executions continue to be carried out – and where Malaysian nationals’ lives are on the line. We must act to protect human rights and stop the death penalty everywhere.”

Concealed data and opaque pardons process

In 2023, several countries continued to withhold and conceal information on the use of the death penalty. These included China and Vietnam where data on the use of the death penalty is classified as a state secret, as well as Belarus and North Korea where little or no information was made available due to restrictive state practices.

Transparency on the use of the death penalty is a critical safeguard of due process.

Amnesty International remains concerned at the lack of transparency on the use of the death penalty in Malaysia as well, particularly in relation to its opaque and secretive pardons process.

Amnesty International is concerned that the secretive handling of pardon petitions in Malaysia – the last recourse available to prisoners under the sentence of death before execution – has aggravated the mental trauma of the prisoners and their families and exacerbated the systemic flaws that undermine their exercise of the right to this last review.

READ MORE:  Extend moratorium on executions

Global call for moratorium on executions

Although the government stated before Parliament in March 2024 that no policy decisions have been made to lift the moratorium on executions in Malaysia, there has not been any confirmation that it will be extended until the death penalty is fully abolished.

“We welcomed the confirmation by the government that the moratorium on executions remains in place for now, but as long as people remain on death row, the risk of this moratorium being lifted cannot be underestimated. We cannot afford to take one step forward and two steps back by resuming executions in Malaysia.”

Despite increases in executions in some countries, the global trend remains overwhelmingly in favour of abolition.

The Constitutional Court of Taiwan is presently considering a judicial challenge on the constitutionality of the death penalty, while an abolitionist bill in Zimbabwe is awaiting imminent consideration by Parliament.

In late 2024, the 79th session of the UN General Assembly will offer Malaysia the opportunity to renew its commitment to human rights before the international community and show its support for the 10th resolution on a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

“The positive change witnessed in Malaysia last year must continue. The journey is far from over and the government must not delay taking the next steps forward to help Malaysia progress towards full abolition.” – Amnesty International

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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