No unity on death penalty

No unity on death penalty

Efforts to remove the death penalty from the nation's law books are once again under way. The only thing clear so far, though, is that there is no consensus.

A survey reported by this newspaper last week appeared to show that only a minority of Thais currently feel strongly about retaining the state's right to execute prisoners for terrible crimes. It also appears the public is somewhat conflicted about how much to trust the justice system.

The death penalty is one of the oldest punishments, and it is the most controversial. It is almost never used in Thailand, and courts are increasingly reluctant even to sentence criminals to death. This is certainly a welcome trend. If the country is to keep the ultimate criminal penalty, it must be clear it will be carried out only in exceptional circumstances. Thailand should never revert to casual use of executions, in the manner seen in some other countries, including our Asian neighbours.

No prisoner has been executed in Thailand in five years. In August, 2009, two drug traffickers were given lethal injections. Prison officials said the men had persisted in running drug gangs, even from inside the maximum security section at Bang Khwang prison. Before the executions of Bundit Jaroenwanit, 45, and Jirawat Poompreuk, 52, it had been six years since an execution. In 2003, weeks after the law changed the method of execution from shooting to injection, four prisoners were executed. Figures as of the end of June showed 612 people on death row, 50 of them women. Eighty of the sentences have been confirmed by the Supreme Court.

Mahidol University lecturer Srisombat Chokprajakchat said last week that her survey indicated more than 41% of Thais nationwide want to keep the death penalty on the books. But just 8% want to scrap capital punishment, with a majority undecided. Ms Srisombat said most of those who favoured keeping executions as a legal punishment felt it was the most effective deterrent against capital crimes including murder and rape.

It is well established, of course, that the death penalty is not actually a deterrent against terrible crimes. But the survey by the Mahidol lecturer revealed an underlying issue. Those supporting it because of the deterrence factor say the real problem is the lack of deterrence provided by ineffective law enforcement across the country — meaning, primarily, the police. Thus, while the death penalty may only deter violent criminals slightly, even that is better than the deterrence provided by the justice system.

Such a lack of confidence is arguably wrong or misplaced. In cases of high-profile crimes, in fact, police have acted swiftly and professionally. The recent rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl on a train from the South was solved in little more than a day. Nor was it a simple case. It took cross-agency cooperation and detective legwork throughout several provinces to arrest the likely killer, a railway employee. But if Ms Srisombat's survey is correct, the case hardened the stance of those that favour keeping the death penalty on the books.

It is now necessary for a full debate on whether it is time to eliminate the death penalty in Thailand. As always, there will be strong opinions, but a national consensus is likely to emerge. Those who feel that executions should be applied for rare, terrible crimes — like the rape-murder on the railway — have a point. So do those who say the death penalty should be abolished, and relegated to the past.

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