Death penalty for drug crimes denounced

(L-R) Ms Zoe Rathus, guest speaker Barrister Julian McMahon and Dr Olivera Simic

Raising awareness of the use of the death penalty for drug offences globally was the focus of a special dinner held in recognition of the 13th World Day Against the Death Penalty in Brisbane last week.

The dinner, hosted by one of Brisbane’s leading human rights lawyers and friend of the Griffith Law School, Stephen Keim SC, featured guest speaker, Barrister Julian McMahon, who represented Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran.

Chan and Sukumaran were both convicted of drug trafficking in Bali and were ultimately executed on the tiny prison island of Nusakambangan on 29 April this year.

Griffith Law School lecturers Dr Olivera Simic and Zoe Rathus attended the dinner.

Dr Simic says the two men reformed themselves and were contributing positively to the world in which they lived.

“Sadly, that was not enough to save them from execution,” Dr Simic says.

“In his presentation Julian outlined the devastatingly uncertain lead up for the families as the news kept on changing about if and when the executions would occur.”

“He also described the raw anguish after the event and reminded us that it was not just our citizens who died at the hands of a State that day. There were six other prisoners shot — citizens of Brazil, Nigeria, Spain and Indonesia.”

Julian’s first death row client was Van Tuong Nguyen who was convicted of drug trafficking in Singapore in the mid-2000s. Van was born in a Thailand refugee camp to Vietnamese parents and after his mother re-settled in Australia, suffered violent beatings from his stepfather.

Ms Zoe Rathus (AM)says according to Julian, it is the poor, the vulnerable, people of colour and the dispossessed who tend to face the death penalty, no matter where it is applied.

Also speaking at the dinner was the Hon Phillip Ruddock MP, who has been a long time campaigner against the death penalty.

He was first elected to the House of Representatives in 1973, which was only six years after the last of Australia’s judicially decreed executions — the hanging of Ronald Ryan.

Mr Ruddock MP says Ryan was also born into poverty, alcoholism and violence.

He explained that the group of countries whose citizens were recently executed with Chan and Sukumaran in Bali provided a basis for some multi-State action but emphasised the difficulties of working in this space while the USA still used capital punishment.

Global death penalty figures

  • 140 countries have abolished the death penalty in law or in practice
  • 58 countries and territories still uphold the death penalty and use this punishment
  • 22 countries carried out executions in 2014
  • 33 countries and territories retain the death penalty for drug crimes
  • 13 of the 33 countries have carried out an execution for drug offences in the past five years

(Source: World Coalition against the Death Penalty)

To find out more about work being done to raise awareness of the death penalty for drug offences contact Australians against Capital Punishment and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights.

Photos and words contributed by Griffith Law School’s Ms Zoe Rathus and Dr Olivera Simic