A Criminal Enterprise

Abolitionist Australia proves indecisive on capital punishment

Posted in News by Sophie Cull on October 16, 2009

When people down here in the South ask me why I have come all the way from Australia to work in an anti-death penalty law office, I reply that I’m really interested in the work and that I can’t do it in Australia since we don’t have capital punishment. Once and a while this conjures a surprised and even shocked response – “Australia doesn’t have the death penalty?”

The city of Melbourne in south-east Australia held a rally on October 10 for the seventh World Day Against the Death Penalty. Two thousand people attended. This may sound like a meager number, but keep in mind two things: 1) Australia’s population is pretty small and 2) there is little reason for people there to care about capital punishment at all since it no longer affects them… right?

But capital punishment is still a live issue in Australia. What’s more, Australia’s position on the death penalty is far from clear cut.

In 2003, then Prime Minister John Howard publicly called for a national debate on the reintroduction of the death penalty following the handing down of a death sentence to one of the Bali Bombers. Howard suggested that in the climate of the War on Terrorism, it was a much needed discussion that should take place in parliament.

In times of peace there is no question that, even when popular opinion does not reflect it, Australia is an abolitionist nation. As one of the 31 sponsors of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights aiming at the abolition of the death penalty, Australia has made an international statement that it does not support the use of capital punishment in any context. Yet when heinous acts are perpetrated against Australian citizens, particularly offenses of terrorism, Australia cannot seem to take a firm stand.

In fact, the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have been involved in a number of cases in recent years that have resulted in the handing down of death sentences. Prime Minister Howard authorised the AFP to help gather evidence and statements and to subpoena witnesses to assist in the conviction and sentencing to death of the Bali Bomber, Amrozi. Likewise, in the case of the Bali Nine – which involves nine Australian drug mules caught in Indonesia, three of whom were sentenced to death in 2006 – the AFP assisted the Indonesian authorities in the Nine’s arrest and conviction. The AFP’s co-operation with Indonesian police in this way violates Australia’s international obligations to work towards the worldwide abolition of the death penalty, as was recognised by the UN Human Rights Committee in the case of Judge v Canada:

For countries that have abolished the death penalty, there is an obligation not to expose a person to the real risk of its application.
Judge v Canada (2002) UN Doc CCPR/C/78/D/829/1998, [10.4]

What’s more, Howard’s position on the Bali Bombers has endangered Australians fighting death row abroad: when petitioning for an Australian’s life in Singapore, Howard’s earlier remark that he didn’t see why ‘anyone would consider execution barbaric for the Bali Bombers’ was thrown back in his face. The Australian was hanged.

The Bali Nine case is particularly worrisome since it involves non-violent drug offenses and the imminent execution of Australian citizens – yet even the current Australian government seems reluctant to try to bring them home.

The father of Scott Rush, one of the Bali Nine, recently launched a petition put forward by the Australian Services Union and the Victorian Committee of Make the Death Penalty History that calls for the national outlawing of capital punishment in Australia and for Australians convicted of capital offenses overseas. In August, Australia’s federal Attorney General also publicly called for capital punishment to be nationally outlawed.

In a time of ‘peace’, there may be enough parliamentary support to push through such a bill if a politician is willing to take up the cause. But anti-death penalty advocates know time is short. In the event that a terrorist attack reaches Australian shores in the next few years (which, we are reminded, is a real possibility) then there is reason to think that Australians might see capital punishment as the only appropriate response.

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