Friday, April 18, 2014

Tribute to Karpal Singh

On 17th March Karpal Singh died in a tragic car accident. His father died in a car accident. Five years ago he was paralysed in a car accident. This champion of those sentenced to death on drug and other charges appears to have been killed by a driver in possession of drugs:

"We are but playthings of the gods, they kill us for their pleasure"

Only a month ago I met this legal champion as he defended Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the Malaysian opposition in parliament. He himself fought alongside Anwar in opposing an autocratic political hegemony.

This website salutes this giant gladiator for justice with the fitting tribute of Zunar.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong

Malaysia is one of the world’s most intransigent executioners in the world. Adherence to the age old brutality of hanging until death has produced one of the world’s greatest gladiator lawyers who has rescued hundreds from the noose, often at the last moment against all odds. Karpal Singh, known as the Tiger of Jelutong, after the constituency where he served as member of parliament for 21 years.
Child of a poor Sikh family he saw the death penalty in the naked brutality of public executions by the Japanese in occupied Penang, and learned to bow deeply to Japanese soldiers who held power of life and death. Throughout his life he has retained a horror of the death penalty and a rejection of unprincipled power.
Nothing in Karpal’s life has passed smoothly, neither his graduation from the University of Singapore, his first employment in a law office, his legal practice which included his own imprisonment for 15 months, or his political career.
His recent biography, “Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong”[1] is a fascinating tale of heroism and daring. In the context of this website we concentrate on his contribution to countering Malaysia’s draconian capital punishment regime.
There is almost an end to the death penalty in Malaysia. In the heyday of executions Malaysia preferred to hang people in pairs, so that they could be a comfort to each other in their last moments. The death penalty was mandatory for possession of 15 grams of heroin, for possession of a gun or ammunition.  Of the 441 people hanged in Malaysia from 1960 to early 2011, 228 of them were convicted of drug trafficking, 130 were convicted of illegal possessions of arms, four were convicted of waging war against the king, and one individual was hanged for kidnapping. Amnesty International claims that two persons were executed in 2013 but this figure is not confirmed elsewhere. In recent years the numbers executed have been one or none. But it is not over yet; there are at least 902 persons condemned to death in Malaysia’s prisons.
A final end to the death penalty in Malaysia will undoubtedly be largely the achievement of Karpal Singh. In the words of his biographer, “While he sees his contribution to Malaysian society as more legal than political, nevertheless his dual-pronged achievements in both fields have been significant and very much entwined. Undoubtedly his biggest contribution to Malaysian society has been in steering hundreds of clients away from the gallows via numerous legal challenges to capital punishment legislation… he has spent a lifetime working to modify the laws of a legal system which evolved from Muslim rulers and British colonialists.”
The biography by Tim Donoghue is an inspiration of leonine defense of the unfortunate, but also a model of imaginative and exhaustive querying of a justice system which appears rigid and unyielding. Karpal fights in the courts, but also in the prison cells where he becomes friend and champion of his clients. When he loses a case, he is there to strengthen and console the families on their last meeting with their relative. When he wins he shares a victory drink with his client, and sees them to the airport if they are foreigners.
He is now 74 years old, crippled and confined to a wheelchair due to a car accident, but he is still alert and daring in his defense strategy, speaking in an eloquent growl that inevitably recalls the metaphor of his nickname, the Tiger of Jelutong.

[1] Karpal Singh, Tiger of Jelutong, Tim Donoghue, Marshall Cavendish Editions, Singapore, 2013

Friday, April 11, 2014

Suracha Chaimongkol 1

A 31-year-old Thai woman was sentenced to death Tuesday, April 8th, after a Ho Chi Minh City court found her guilty of smuggling nearly two kilograms of cocaine from Brazil to Vietnam last October.
This is the second death sentence that the HCMC People's Court has handed down to a foreigner in as many days.
Chaimongkol Suracha, 31, told the court that she got to know an African man called Fosta online. Fosta had introduced her to a man named Mieara who he said would help her land a job, news websites  VnExpress reported Tuesday.
On August 12, 2012, Mieara took Chaimongkol  to Vietnam to meet the manager of an automobile export company, but then said the company had a job vacancy in Brazil, so they took a flight to the South American nation that night.
When they arrived in Brazil, Mieara gave Chaimongkol US$1,000 for expenses and left.
Chaimongkol  said she was watched by another African man, and later she was taken shopping to buy a suitcase and two albums by two other Africans.
They then asked her to return to Vietnam to meet the manager of the car company and get the job Mieara had earlier promised.
Chaimongkol  was arrested October 1, 2012 at the Tan Son Nhat International Airport when she arrived from Brazil, after customs officers discovered cocaine in the two photo albums. The flight had transited through Dubai.
Chaimongkol told investigators and the judge that she did not know that the albums contained drugs.
But investigators dismissed her claims, saying evidence showed that she had willingly been a mule for a transnational drug trafficking ring for profit, the Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer) newspaper reported. The report did not elaborate on the evidence presented by investigators.
The VnExpress report, meanwhile, said the panel of judges said the fact that Vietnamese customs officials had found the drug in her luggage, that she had moved from Thailand to several countries, spent Mieara's money, and stayed with the African people, combined with other evidence, was sufficient to pronounce her guilty.  

Suracha Chaimongkol 2


H.E. Mr. Nguyen Tat Thanh
The Embassy of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam
83/1 Wireless Road, Lumpini,
Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10330

Your Excellency,

For ten years the Union for Civil Liberty has been campaigning for abolition of the death penalty in Thailand. The Thai Government appears to favour a gradual approach to abolition, and a spokesperson from the Ministry of Justice has spoken of Thailand achieving a state of de facto abolition in 2019, the tenth anniversary of the latest executions in our country. Meanwhile the Ministry of Justice is organizing consultation meetings on the issue in five areas of the country, with the purpose of preparing material for a debate in parliament. The Union for Civil Liberty, an accredited Civil Society Organization is a partner in this programme.
As the years pass I become convinced that the approaches to abolition in Asian countries, especially within ASEAN, must become a joint process. The conditions and problems in our countries are very similar, especially in the matter of public opinion regarding the death penalty. In this context may I ask your sympathetic attention to the case of the young Thai women currently under sentence of death in Vietnam, in particular the recent case of Suracha Chaimongkol, who was sentenced to death by a Court in Ho Chi Minh City on 4th April 2014.
To begin with the most human aspects of the case may I plead that when a woman is involved in drug trafficking there are always men involved as principle actors; in most cases in the region these men are of African origin who are very skilled in luring girls with no criminal background to be drug mules. They display a false interest and charm in persuading young women of no experience, and usually from rural areas, offering them attention and opportunities of travel they have never dreamed of. At this stage the women are deceived with promises of attractive employment abroad and showered with gifts and hospitality. The nature of the employment is not clearly specified, as the woman becomes more entangled in a debt of obligation. Do these young women realise that the two weighty photo albums they are asked to take back to their country, contain a deadly content? Some do and some do not. My guess is that the majority are in a state of confusion, and are certainly not informed of the consequences of their action. They are young, without experience of criminal behaviour, of low education, and having the time of their lives, experiencing attention and cajolement beyond their expectations.
Mitigation is an essential part of the justice system, but it does not appear to have played a part in the sentencing. I am certain that Chaimongkol is an excellent candidate for reform. She must be punished, and severely punished, but not to the level of execution. One may ask what punishment is left for those who lead and deceive young women to the execution chamber.
The young woman was deceived by men, no doubt arrested and sentenced by men, and will be executed by men. What does this say of the state of women in our cultures?
It is notable that most countries which abolish the death penalty, approach the final act by suspending the death sentence for women. It is easier to see the horror of the death penalty when it is applied to the weak, instilling in us a pity for women who gave every one of us life, and whom we depended on when we were helpless, or during those stages in life, illness or old age, when we again become dependent. The execution of women is a sorry affair, frequently mismanaged, and involving abhorrent detail[1]

The issue of the death penalty for drug trials is most questionable. Vietnam has ratified the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights and your Excellency is certainly familiar with Article 6.2, “In countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes”. Members of the UN Committee for Human Rights have interpreted these words to exclude drug crimes from the category of most serious crimes[2]. Women rarely commit the crimes of premeditated homicide which constitute “most serious crimes” in international law. Are they then to suffer extra condemnation for drug crimes that are unlawfully included in the category of “serious crimes”?

Certainly drug trafficking is a serious criminal act but not a most serious crime. Like all crimes incurring the death penalty, execution is not an effective deterrent. Drugs are a social evil, as are prostitution and modern slavery. The solutions are in education, social rejection of aberrant behaviour, and such penalties as an enlightened justice system may impose. We may affirm with certainty that the execution of young Thai women is not part of elimination of the problem. One may return again to ICCPR for an indication of the way to follow, Article 10.3 “The penitentiary system shall comprise treatment of prisoners the essential aim of which shall be their reformation and social rehabilitation”.
Finally, may I return to the importance of a regional sensitivity to judicial practice and use of the death penalty. This letter is not a criticism of Vietnam. A year ago I had the opportunity to observe the lives of farmers in the Mekong Delta and saw that Vietnam is an example to all countries in this region for its promotion of rice farmers.   Thailand also condemns women to death for drug smuggling. But women condemned to death regularly benefit from commutation of sentence. In the whole history of the death sentence since 1935 only three women have been executed, none in recent years. I believe that extending commutation of death sentences for women, especially for drug crimes where women are especially vulnerable, would now be a step forward in the administration of justice. May I plead that your Excellency recommend compassion and mercy for Thai women condemned to death on drug charges because of their particular vulnerability to deception, their doubtful participation in acting as drug mules, and as a gesture of a recognition of the condition of women in society. I am informed by members of the Thai office for narcotics control, as their colleagues in the UN Office for Drug Control, that they are convinced of the irrelevance of the death penalty in combating drugs. They would certainly be pleased by a Vietnamese initiative to abandon a policy of executing women convicted on drug charges and be the more willing to offer their cooperation in pursuing a more enlightened policy of drug control.
                                                  Yours faithfully,
                                Danthong Breen, Head of Death Penalty Section
                                                   Union for Civil Liberty

[1] See posts on the execution of women
[2] Human Rights Committee CCPR/CO/84/THA 8 July 2005