Malaysia to repeal death penalty and sedition law
Decision to end capital punishment welcomed by Amnesty International
A pedestrian walks past a wall carrying a message highlighting Malaysia’s mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph: Tengku Bahar/AFP/Getty Images
The case of Muhammad Lukman Mohamad ignited outrage in August, when he received a death sentence in Malaysia for selling medicinal cannabis oil to cancer patients. Even the country’s new prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, called for a review of the sentence the 29-year-old father received.
Now, Mr Mahathir’s government is going one step further, eliminating the death penalty entirely. “All death penalty will be abolished. Full stop,” the country’s minister of law, Liew Vui Keong, told reporters this week.
The government is also preparing to rescind the colonial-era Sedition Act, which was used by previous governments to silence critics and opposition politicians. Gobind Singh, the communications and multimedia minister, said on Thursday that use of the law should be suspended immediately, pending its repeal.
“The decision was made by the cabinet yesterday that since we are going to abolish the Sedition Act, action under that act should be suspended temporarily,” he told reporters. Parliament is expected to consider measures rescinding both laws in the coming weeks.
About 1,200 people, many of them sentenced for drug offences, are on death row in Malaysia. The government imposed a moratorium on executions in July. Amnesty International called the decision to end capital punishment “a major step forward for all those who have campaigned for an end to the death penalty in Malaysia”.
Abolishing capital punishment and repealing the Sedition Act were in the campaign platform of Mahathir’s coalition, Pakatan Harapan, but the measures received little attention during the recent election campaign.
The coalition won a surprising victory in May over the political machine of the prime minister at the time, Najib Razak, who now faces dozens of charges of corruption. Mahathir (92) previously served as prime minister from 1981 to 2003.
Ending the death penalty could aid in the investigation of Najib’s possible role in the 2006 murder of a Mongolian woman, Altantuya Shaariibuu, by his bodyguards. While the bodyguards were convicted, authorities hope to discover who gave the orders.
Altantuya helped negotiate Malaysia’s purchase of French submarines, a transaction that remains under investigation for possible kickbacks. She claimed that she was owed $500,000 for helping to broker the deal.
One person convicted of her murder, Sirul Azhar Umar, fled to Australia, where he is now in immigration detention. He has offered to help Malaysia’s new government in its investigation, but Australia had been unwilling to return him because he could have faced the death penalty in Malaysia.
Securing Sirul’s return was not the purpose of abolishing the death penalty but is “a good side benefit”, said Ramkarpal Singh, a member of parliament and the brother of Gobind. “Now the Australian government must send him back,” he said. “They have no reason to keep him once it is abolished.”
Malaysia’s move to end capital punishment goes against the grain in southeast Asia, where some countries execute people convicted of trafficking even relatively small amounts of narcotics. Only two countries in the region, Cambodia and the Philippines, have banned the death penalty.
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who has encouraged extrajudicial killings of thousands of drug users and sellers, is leading an effort to reinstate legal executions.
In Malaysia, the death penalty is mandatory for murder, drug trafficking, treason and waging war against the king. The case of Mohamad, the cannabis oil seller, helped focus attention on the unfairness of imposing a mandatory death sentence in drug trafficking cases even when they involved the sale of relatively small amounts, said Mr Ramkarpal, who has long opposed the death penalty.
During his trial, Mohamad testified that he had sold cannabis oil to patients suffering from life-threatening illnesses. “Cases like that made the point very clearly that the mandatory death penalty ought to go,” Mr Ramkarpal said. – New York Times