Last week the JCU Amnesty International Action Group had a stall at the Market Day held as part of the JCU Orientation Week activities. I spent several hours there collecting signatures on a petition addressed to Indonesia’s President Jokowi asking for clemency for Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.
While sympaethetic towards the two condemned men, many students I spoke to would not sign the petition. They thought, that because the two Australians knew they could face the death penalty for drug trafficking in Indonesia, Indonesia had every right to carry out the executions.
ABC radio station TripleJ recently published the results of a SMS poll on this issue conducted by Roy Morgan Research in late January. 52 per cent of the 2123 people contacted agreed that Australians convicted of drug trafficking in another country and sentenced to death should be executed.
The debate on the death penalty has resulted in calls for Australian governments to consider the re-introduction of the death penalty for certain crimes. A letter published in the Townsville Bulletin last week suggested that a referendum should be held to assess people’s views on the death penalty. Over the next few days there were a number of texts to the editor in support of this proposal.
In response to this letter and ensuing texts, there was a timely letter from correspondent Mark Enders reminding people why the death penalty was abolished in Australia.
Ronald Ryan was the last person to be executed in Australia in 1967. In Enders’ words “…Those who were involved in his state sanctioned murder- from journalists, to the sentencing judge, to the prison workers who had to carry out the act, to his family were all deeply traumatised for decades.” A report by the Australian Coalition against the Death Penalty “Hanged Innocent”, reviews the inconsistencies and doubts surrounding the conviction and execution of Ronald Ryan.
Ela Ghandhi, Mahatma Ghnadhi’s granddaughter, who recently visited Australia, campaigned for many years to have the death penalty abolished in South Africa. Ela Ghandhi interviewed on ABC radio said she opposed the death penalty for many reasons, and that she was especially concerned about the dehumanising effect on those entrusted with carrying out the sentence.
Mark Enders also referred to evidence from research that shows that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and that support for the death penalty is largely motivated by the desire for revenge.
Bryan Stevenson, a human rights lawyer and anti-death penalty campaigner from the US, visited Australia recently as a guest of the Perth Writers’ Festival and spoke against the death penalty. In the US, 32 of the 50 states still retain the death penalty on their statute books.
Bryan Stevenson pointed out the racial nature of its implementation in those states still using the death penalty – a black person who killed a white person is 22 times more likely to be sentenced to death than a white person who kills a black person. Bryan Stevenson said that the question should not be “does a person deserve to die for the crime they have committed” but rather “do we deserve to take a person’s life under any circumstance”. Bryan Stevenson presents his view on the death penalty and other justice issues in a TED talk that has received more than 2 million viewings.
Around the world the majority of countries (140) have abolished the death penalty in law or practice – and most of these have done so in the past 40 years. The campaign to abolish the death penalty is one of the great human rights successes of the 20th century and it is important that this momentum be sustained in the 21st century.
One thing we can all do is inform ourselves on the issues surrounding the death penalty and discuss those issues with people around us. A fact sheet available from the Amnesty International Australia web site is a very useful discussion starter on this topic.