Malaysia’s Parliament has approved a bill that would cease the mandatory use of the death penalty and limit capital punishment to serious crimes, notching a rare victory for Asian anti-death penalty campaigners.
In a session yesterday, lawmakers voted for a package of legal reforms that would also trim the number of offences punishable by death and abolish natural-life prison sentences.
While the death penalty will remain, judges will now be given the discretion of imposing prison sentences of between 30 and 40 years in place of the death penalty, The Associated Press reported. Previously, courts had no choice but to impose the death penalty for a range of serious crimes, including murder, treason, kidnapping, terrorist acts, and drug trafficking.
Under the changes, life imprisonment will also be replaced with jail terms of between 30 and 40 years, while the death penalty has been abolished for a number of lesser offenses, including kidnapping and certain firearm crimes.
The vote fulfills a pledge made last June, when then Law Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar said that the government had agreed to do away with the mandatory use of the death penalty, following the presentation to the cabinet of a report on substitute sentences.
“This action is very significant to ensure that the amendments to the relevant Acts take into account the principles of ‘proportionality’ and the constitutionality of any proposal to the government later,” he said at the time.
The move dates back to 2018, when the Pakatan Harapan government that came to power in that year’s general election promised to do away with the use of the death penalty altogether. After encountering resistance from conservatives, this was later watered down to a pledge that it would merely abolish the mandatory use of the death penalty. The country has also maintained a moratorium on executions since 2018.
While the move falls short of the full abolition demanded by human rights groups and anti-death penalty campaigners, and judges will retain the discretion to impose capital punishment in extreme cases, it represents a rare sign of progress on the death penalty. Vietnam and China continue to execute dozens of prisoners each year, while neighboring Singapore has carried out a rash of executions since lifting a pandemic-induced hiatus last year. Myanmar’s military junta has also resurrected the judicial death penalty in its war of extermination against the country’s rising resistance movement.
As well as sparing future defendants, the Malaysian government’s reform could be life-changing for the 1,318 people currently on death row in Malaysia, most of which involve non-violent drug offenses. These include 842 who have exhausted all avenues of appeals.
Following yesterday’s vote, Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh, said that prisoners will have 90 days to file a review of their sentences once the bill comes into effect, though their convictions will stand.
“A review of this sentence reflects the government’s commitment to always be open to renewing and improving legislation and justice in this country,” Singh said, describing the reforms as a significant step forward for Malaysia’s criminal justice system.
How much impact the change has depends on how generous Malaysian courts are about the hundreds of defendants currently sitting on death row.