Death Penalty 2013: Shroud of secrecy around executions in Asia Pacific

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The Asia Pacific region saw a disturbing level of secrecy around executions in 2013, Amnesty International found in its annual review of the death penalty worldwide.

In several countries, including China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia and Viet Nam authorities flaunted international standards on transparency around the death penalty, refusing to release figures or inform family members, lawyers or the general public about executions.

“The shroud of secrecy around executions in Asia is deeply worrying and flies in the face of international standards. It raises the question – what are these governments trying to hide?” said Richard Bennett, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Director.

“The world is moving towards abolition of the death penalty while many Asian countries try to swim against the tide and hide their state-sanctioned killings.”

Ten countries in Asia carried out executions in 2013, two more than the year before. Both Indonesia and Viet Nam resumed executions last year after long periods without implementing death sentences.

At least 37 executions were carried out across the region last year, one less than in 2012. These numbers do not include China, where Amnesty International believes thousands were executed – more than the rest of the world put together. But with executions treated as a state secret the correct figure is impossible to determine.

It was not possible to confirm any figures for secretive North Korea, although credible reports that could not be independently verified indicated that at least 70 people may have been put to death in 2013.

Indonesia resumed executions for the first time in four years in March, when a Malawi national convicted of drug trafficking was executed by firing squad. Four more people were executed during the year, and the government made worrying statements hinting at plans to increase executions.

The executions were carried out in near total secrecy.

“Indonesia took a serious step backwards on human rights last year by resuming executions. Jakarta has the potential to be a real leader on rights in South East Asia, making this regressive move all the more disappointing,” said Richard Bennett.

“If this was a populist ploy by the government to shore up support, it is a shocking way to play with people’s lives.”

Viet Nam, another country that treats the death penalty as a state secret, executed seven people by lethal injection during 2013, the first executions in the country for some 18 months. In 2012, Viet Nam struggled to carry out executions due to an EU export ban on the drugs needed for lethal injections, and the government last year indicated that it might revert to using firing squads in the future.

Secrecy around executions was evident in several other countries. India’s only execution in 2013 - of a man convicted in relation to a 2002 terror attack on the Indian parliament - was carried out without any prior notification and despite serious fair trial concerns.

Governments in Japan and Malaysia continued not to inform the public before executions. In Japan, death row prisoners were once again left to wonder if each day would be their last. 

But despite the setbacks, 2013 also saw positive developments in Asia. In Pakistan, the new government suspended its application of the death penalty, after carrying out one execution in 2012. For the second consecutive year, no death sentences were implemented in Singapore, where six people had their cases commuted following a review of the country’s mandatory death penalty laws in 2012.

Even China saw limited progress, as the Supreme Court strengthened some legal protections in death penalty cases, and the former Health Minister announced a plan to end the practice of organ harvesting from executed prisoners by mid-2014.

Despite threats from Papua New Guinea to resume executions, the Pacific remained the only sub-region with a clean record, reporting no death sentences or executions.

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