The execution by firing squad of Australian nationals Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, in April this year brought the issue of capital punishment to the forefront of Australia’s consciousness and reignited debate over the practice on a global scale. The two young men were executed alongside six others in Bali after being convicted of drug offences in Indonesia. In light of this we must ask what sort of crimes – if any – justify state-sanctioned killings.
Public opinion in Australia in relation to the executions was hard to discern. Polls reflected conflicting sentiments on the death penalty. In January 2015, a Roy Morgan poll found 52% supported the penalty for those convicted of drug trafficking overseas. A month later, a conflicting Lowy Institute Poll found 62% of Australian adults opposed the executions of Chan and Sukumaran.
The mixed public opinion in relation to these executions echoed that in evidence when Australians Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers were hanged in Malaysia in 1986. A historical report from the Australian Institute of Criminology suggested public support for capital punishment at the time ranged from 43% to 70%, depending on the crimes. A national survey in May 1986, however, revealed only 17% supported the death penalty for persons convicted of serious drug trafficking.
Despite the variance in public sentiment, in both cases the Australian government response was strongly stated and in definite opposition to the death penalty. The then prime minister Bob Hawke called the execution of Barlow and Chambers “barbaric”, sparking outrage in Malaysia. The remark drove a wedge between Australia and Malaysia. Relations were only rebuilt after the 2003 retirement of former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
In response to the execution of Sukumaran and Chan, Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, and foreign minister, Julie Bishop, labelled the killings “cruel and unnecessary”. Australia’s official response emphasised the men’s rehabilitation during their ten years on death row.
Hours after their deaths were confirmed, Tony Abbott announced the “unprecedented step” of recalling Australia’s ambassador to Indonesia. As many guessed, however, this move was only shortlived. The ambassador returned quietly about five weeks later.
Although ultimately ineffective, there is no doubt Australia lobbied strongly against the death penalty in the case of Chan and Sukumaran. Australia’s response to the executions reflected the official and well-established view that Australia is opposed to capital punishment in law and policy.
Yet the death penalty is imposed thousands of times each year and in many cases Australia and other abolitionist countries do not lobby strongly in protest. At a time when the issue is fresh in the public mind, an examination of the worldwide practice is warranted.
Which countries execute – and why?
Amnesty International reports annually on the imposition of the death penalty globally. It provides only minimum figures, because it only reports figures where reasonable confirmation exists. China, North Korea and some other states treat capital punishment as a state secret. The numbers executed in those states are not reported, although it is estimated that China executes and sentences to death thousands of people each year. Published reports of capital punishment statistics therefore exclude practices in China and North Korea.
In 2014, at least 22 countries carried out the executions of 607 people or more. At least 2,466 people were sentenced to death around the world. The five countries responsible for the most executions, according to confirmed data, were Iran (289), Saudi Arabia (90), Iraq (61), the USA (35) and Sudan (23). In the USA, 3,035 people were living on death row.
The death penalty is imposed in some countries for “crimes” which are not even regarded as such in many other countries. The Cornell University Law School Project Death Penalty Worldwide charts the practice of capital punishment in all retentionist countries. Australian observers of the death penalty are arguably most familiar with the punishment as it has been applied to drug offenders in some South-East Asian countries. However, in Afghanistan, it is legal for the state to execute a person convicted of apostasy, adultery or consensual homosexual sex. In Iran, the death penalty may be imposed for recidivist theft. In Saudi Arabia, executions are carried out as punishment for “crimes” including sorcery, witchcraft and repeat partaking of alcohol. Although official statistics are unavailable, it is known that Chinese law permits capital punishment for serious graft or bribery offences involving large sums of money.
In 2014, executions were carried out in various countries by beheading, hanging, lethal injection and shooting. In the United Arab Emirates it is legal to execute by stoning. In 2014 all executions in the US were carried out by lethal injection – but some states retain other methods as legal options, including hanging, shooting, the gas chamber and the electric chair.
Amnesty International is currently campaigning to prevent the execution of people with mental or intellectual disabilities. Capital punishment continues to be imposed against people who lack the capacity to adequately understand their actions or punishment.
In January this year, the US states of Texas and Georgia executed intellectually disabled men. This contravened federal court bans on imposing the death penalty in such cases. Texas defines intellectual disability in relation to a character in the John Steinbeck novel Of Mice and Men rather than according to the standards set by medical science.
Globally, and notably in the USA, the death penalty is also imposed disproportionately against the poor and those from minority racial and ethnic groups. In violation of international law, Egypt, Iran, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and other countries continue to execute juveniles.
Barbaric and ineffective
Even the most pragmatic analysis must reject the death penalty as ineffectual and unreliable. In the US since 1973, more than 150 death row inmates have been exonerated, often based on DNA evidence. There is no evidence that capital punishment is any more effective at deterring crime than life imprisonment.
States that carry out capital punishment debase their justice systems and devalue human life. The practice is indefensible regardless of the severity of the crime for which it is meted out. When imposed against the mentally ill, intellectually disabled people or children - or disproportionately against racial minorities and the poor - capital punishment is barbaric. Abolitionist countries are obliged to lobby against the practice, whether or not it affects their nationals.
Shelby Houghton, academic research assistant at the University of Newcastle Law School, Australia, contributed to the research and writing of this article.