2 Feb 2005

The death penalty as society's loss

Stop Executions Now

The following editorial is from SMH.

October 25, 2004

The death penalty arouses the rawest human emotion. It has been out of favour with Australian governments - but not all politicians and certainly not all Australians - since Ronald Ryan was hanged at Melbourne's Pentridge Prison 37 years ago, but remains a penalty of choice in many countries.

It is a punishment advocated largely in terms of black and white, good versus evil, an eye for an eye, deterrence over compassion. This is despite the highly questionable deterrence value of capital punishment and despite its zero capacity for undoing errors of judgement against individuals convicted of heinous crimes they did not commit. In these latter cases, execution is not just a sin against innocent individuals but a crime against society itself. More broadly, capital punishment is a victory of pessimism over optimism where the most dogmatic form of retribution sweeps away all consideration of reformation, where an individual life is so disposable that society might rightly ponder its own worth.

The issue is back on the Australian agenda not because of any immediate prospect of capital punishment's reinstatement here but because one of our own - Nguyen Tuong Van, a 24-year-old salesman from Melbourne - is left with one slim hope of avoiding execution in Singapore, where he was arrested two years ago on heroin smuggling charges. Nguyen, who came to Australia as a refugee, was in transit at Singapore's Changi Airport, en route from Indochina to Australia. He allegedly told authorities he was carrying 396.2 grams of heroin on instruction from a Sydney-based crime syndicate to repay the legal debt of his twin brother, who had been arrested in Australia on drug and affray charges. This explanation is presumably what Australia's High Commissioner to Singapore, Gary Quinlan, refers to as the "very specific compassionate and humanitarian circumstances" that will form the basis of an appeal for clemency to Singapore's President, S.R. Nathan, now Nguyen has lost his last court opportunity to have the conviction and death penalty overturned.

The chances of clemency are remote, indeed. Amnesty International thinks the Singapore Government has hanged about 400 people since 1991, mostly for drug trafficking. Clemency has been granted on just six occasions. Singapore has always insisted it would not yield to imposition of what it regards as soft Western standards.

Australia has a sound relationship with Singapore and the Australian Government prudently has adopted a softly, softly approach in the Nguyen matter for fear that stridency will only stiffen Singaporean resolve. The issue is not whether Nguyen should be punished for his crime but whether the punishment is proportionate to his wrongdoing.

Leo Tolstoy, who saw much horror in his life, never overcame the emotional pain of witnessing a French execution by guillotine. He recalled, "There is no reasoning will, but a paroxysm of human passion." The execution, he said, was marked by "coolness to the point of refinement, homicide-with-comfort, nothing big". And that's the point. No society grows from its inhumanity; it just diminishes.

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