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Malaysia scraps mandatory death penalty, natural-life prison terms

KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia’s Parliament on Monday passed sweeping legal reforms to remove the mandatory death penalty, trim the number of offences punishable by death and abolish natural-life prison sentences.

Malaysia has had a moratorium on executions since 2018 when it first promised to abolish capital punishment entirely.

The government, however, faced political pressure from some parties and rowed back on the pledge a year later, saying it would retain the death penalty but allow courts to replace it with other punishments at their discretion.

Under the amendments passed on Monday, alternatives to the death penalty include whipping and imprisonment of between 30 and 40 years.

The new jail term will replace all previous provisions that call for imprisonment for the duration of the offender’s natural life.

Life imprisonment sentences, defined by Malaysian law as a fixed term of 30 years, will be retained.

Capital punishment will also be removed as an option for some serious crimes that do not cause death, such as discharging and trafficking of a firearm and kidnapping, according to the new measures.

Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh said capital punishment was an irreversible punishment that had not been an effective deterrent for crime.

“The death penalty has not brought the results it was intended to bring,” he said. “We cannot arbitrarily ignore the existence of the inherent right to life of every individual.” 

The reform will still have to clear the Senate, but it is widely expected to pass without major opposition.

The amendments will apply to 34 offences currently punishable by death, including murder and drug trafficking. Eleven of them carry the death penalty as a mandatory punishment.

The process to end the mandatory death sentence began in March with the tabling of the Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Bill 2023 and the Revision of Sentences of Death and Imprisonment for Natural Life (Temporary Jurisdiction of the Federal Court) Bill 2023 in Malaysia’s Parliament.

The Bills were tabled by Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said, the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of law and institutional reforms.

“The abolition of the mandatory death sentence is aimed at valuing the sanctity of life of every individual while ensuring justice and fairness for all,” Ms Azalina said in a statement as debates on the Bills were being held in Parliament in March.

“This includes murdered victims and victims of drug trafficking, as well as the families of these victims. The policies under these Acts will be a middle path to ensure that justice is preserved for all.”

The amendments would act retrospectively and allow the court to revise the sentences of 840 death row inmates and 25 others who failed in their appeal for clemency to the Pardons Board.

“A total of 476 death row inmates, who have yet to exhaust their appeal process in court, will also be covered by the law,” Ms Azalina said in March.

She also said the court would be empowered to revise cases where a convicted person was sentenced to or is serving “imprisonment for natural life”.

Their sentences would be reduced to life imprisonment, which is between 30 and 40 years.

A total of 47 prisoners are serving imprisonment for natural life, while another 70 are being held until they die after having had their death sentences commuted.

While Malaysia’s vote stopped short of ending capital punishment, Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network executive coordinator Dobby Chew welcomed the vote as a “good way forward”.

“We have data that shows that the death penalty doesn’t change anything,” he said. - REUTERS