Momentum is building for the abolition of the death penalty in Malaysia, but the pace may not be fast enough to save Japanese citizen Mariko Takeuchi from the gallows after she was found guilty of drug trafficking last month.

Malaysia is one of 58 countries in the world where the death penalty is still on the books, and for offenses including murder, drug trafficking and treason, the punishment is mandatory death.

This means, as Nora Murat, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, put it, “When a judge has decided on the guilt of the accused, he has only one punishment to give ‘death.’ “

In Malaysia, the death sentence is carried out by hanging.

“Mandatory death penalty removes the discretion of judges to consider external factors such as the accused’s level of maturity and intelligence, life background, circumstances leading to the commission of the offense and other mitigating factors,” she said.

In Takeuchi’s case, the 37-year-old nurse from Aomori Prefecture was convicted Oct. 25 by the Shah Alam High Court for trying to smuggle 3.5 kg of methamphetamine into Malaysia through Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Oct. 30, 2009.

She testified that she was merely doing an acquaintance, an Iranian man whose name she did not know, a favor by delivering the suitcase from Dubai to Kuala Lumpur. She claimed to be ignorant of the contents of the suitcase.

But the judge was not convinced, and he sentenced her to be hanged.

Lawyer Steven Thiru, who spoke at a recent seminar on the abolition of the death penalty, said there is no proof the punishment “is deterring heinous and serious crimes.”

It has obviously failed to curb drug trafficking, he said, pointing out that 69 percent, or 479 people out of 696 on death row as of March, were convicted of drug trafficking.

Statistics from the Home Ministry illuminated more clearly his point.

According to Deputy Home Minister Abu Seman Yusop, last year authorities arrested 499 people for drug trafficking, 260 of them foreigners. Of the total, the court sentenced 37 to the gallows. In 2009, they arrested 225, 24 of whom received the death sentence.

Most of the foreigners under arrest are from Iran and Nigeria.

“The vast majority of arrests for drug trafficking are that of nonviolent, low-ranking ‘little fish’ in the drug market,” Thiru said.

Nazri Abdul Aziz, the de facto law minister, said the government is “rethinking” the death penalty, but he stressed that it does not mean total abolishment yet.

“Rethinking . . . the death penalty is part of the government’s effort to move ahead with the times for a more humane world,” he said at the seminar.

The campaign against capital punishment received a boost when in June the legislature set up a bipartisan group that also included representatives from the Attorney General’s Chambers, the Bar Council and the National Human Rights Commission to look into the issue.

“The Attorney General’s Chambers made public for the first time its policy decision not to enact (a) new law that carries the death penalty. The chamber is also considering whether the death penalty should be abolished entirely or partially. There are also discussions about a middle path approach to remove the mandatory death sentence and return discretion to the judges,” Nazri said.

The June meeting targeted the penalties on drug offenses that they said should not be classified as a “most serious crime” that justifies capital punishment.

The meeting also agreed on a resolution to call on the government to impose a moratorium on imposing the death penalty while a thorough review is being conducted.

While the government has not agreed on the moratorium, last year there was only one execution carried out, which abolitionists viewed as a hopeful sign.

One of the reasons that could soften the stance of the government toward the death penalty, particularly for drug trafficking, is the fact that there has been an increasing number of Malaysian drug mules caught overseas.

According to the police, between 2007 and 2010, there were 239 Malaysians languishing in foreign jails after being caught with drugs.

The government has often been called to intervene, especially when the detainees are faced with the death sentence like the case of Yong Vui Kong, who was only 18 when he was arrested for drug trafficking in Singapore in 2007.

Like Malaysia, drug trafficking carries the mandatory death sentence in Singapore and Yong was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. He is now at the last stage of appeal, seeking clemency from Singapore’s president.

Yong’s case has drawn a vast amount of publicity in both countries as abolitionists joined hands with his family to campaign for his release. The Malaysian Foreign Ministry even made a rare appeal for clemency on Yong’s behalf.

As for Takeuchi, the first Japanese to be tried and sentenced to death for drug trafficking, her case appears to have received a muted response in her home country, unlike the one involving Australian nationals Kevin John Barlow and Brian Geoffrey Chambers, who were executed in 1986, a year after they were both found guilty for trafficking 141.9 grams of heroin.

The Barlow and Chambers case sparked the beginning of a chill in ties between Malaysia and Australia, especially when then Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke described the punishment as “barbaric,” which riled then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. The latter constantly took pot shots at Australia throughout his 22 years in office. Ties between the two countries only warmed up after Mahathir stepped down in 2003.

But it is not the end of the road for Takeuchi yet as she can appeal her conviction at the Court of Appeal, failing which she could take her case to the Federal Court, and finally she could seek a pardon from the king.

The whole process, according to her lawyer, could be concluded within a year, after which — if luck is not on her side — she will join the line with around 700 other convicts currently on death row.

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