Malaysia says death row prisoners can appeal sentences

More than 1,000 prisoners on death row or facing natural-life prison sentences can appeal for lesser punishments starting Tuesday, Malaysia’s law minister has said, as the government takes steps towards abolishing capital punishment entirely.

Legal experts and activists say the announcement brings Malaysia a step closer to international human rights norms, but caution the review of individual cases will be complicated and time consuming.

Some 1,020 prisoners are eligible to file for a review of their sentences, according to Malaysian Law Minister Azalina Othman Said.

“The Cabinet unanimously approved the mechanism for conducting court proceedings related to the revision of mandatory death penalties and life imprisonment sentences on Aug. 30,” she said in a statement on Monday.

Priority would be based on prisoners’ age, health and length of imprisonment, among other factors, Azalina said.

Malaysia’s parliament in April voted to scrap the mandatory death penalty and end natural life sentences, saying capital punishment as a deterrent had not lowered crime. Judges still have the discretion to implement the death sentence for 11 offenses, including murder and terrorism.

It was now up to the courts to follow the government’s lead and send a message that the death penalty was not a necessary component of Malaysia’s criminal justice system, said Dobby Chew, the executive coordinator of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network.

“We must also look at drug issues that contribute to two thirds of those on death row,” he told BenarNews. “Our punitive method of tackling drug use and trafficking has done nothing but result in prison overpopulation and continued proliferation of drugs in Malaysia.”

Senior criminal lawyer K.A. Ramu praised the appeal process for offering a second chance to individuals who have either repented or were manipulated by others to commit crimes. However, he said simply easing punishment would not address broader issues.

“To deter individuals from committing heinous crimes such as murder or drug trafficking, the government must address the factors that lead to such actions, cracking down on syndicates that manipulate less-educated individuals to become drug mules,” he told BenarNews.

New hope

The sister of one death row prisoner said the announcement gave her a glimmer of hope she might be reunited with her brother, who has been in jail for 20 years and nine months. 

He was 23 years old when he was given the death penalty under Section 39B of the Dangerous Drugs Act, said Amelia, who did not want to give her family name.

“At the time of his arrest, he was only in his early twenties,” she said. “It’s so sad to think about how much of his life has passed within those prison walls. 

“Our mother passed away two years ago without seeing him again. It was the saddest moment for all of us.”

She said their father was now 77 years old with medical issues. “Having my brother back would be a blessing,” she said through sobs.

However, navigating the appeals process will be difficult for many prisoners and their families, said Chew.

“There have already been indications that those awaiting re-sentencing will need their files to be revisited to identify potential mitigating factors recorded in past judgments, and there is a need to establish a baseline of their mental and physical health,” he told BenarNews.

Additional issues could also arise during hearings at the Court of Appeal, further complicating re-sentencing, he said.

Court-assigned counsel or government-funded legal aid will be extended to prisoners who could not afford representation, Malaysia’s law minister Azalina said

The resentencing initiative showed the principle of restorative justice was being upheld in Malaysia and the Unity Government cared about giving prisoners a second chance, she said.

In March, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail told Parliament that 78,236 people were detained in Malaysian prisons, about 6,000 inmates over capacity.

In order to tackle the overflowing prison population, the government introduced a parole program to allow petty criminals to do community service instead of jail time.


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