Lawyers warn of ‘the other death sentence’

PETALING JAYA: Lawyers have called for judges to be given the freedom to impose minimum and maximum jail terms for offences which now carry the death penalty as circumstances in every case will differ.

They said a long prison term that removed the court’s discretion would constitute a “death sentence” of another kind, and that maintaining prisons and inmates would take a toll on government expenditure.

Manjeet Singh Dhillon urged the executive and legislature to have faith in the judiciary to determine the measure of punishment in crimes presently carrying the capital punishment.

Responding to de facto law minister Liew Vui Keong’s statement that the death penalty would be replaced with a minimum jail term of 30 years, he said any prisoner above 40 years of age would likely die behind bars if this was imposed.

The death sentence is currently handed down for drug trafficking offences, waging war against the Agong, murder, killing victims during kidnapping, and possessing and using firearms.

The government recently said it had decided to abolish the death penalty and that amendments would be tabled in the ongoing Parliament session.

Manjeet said even a cursory glance at the Penal Code and the Dangerous Drugs Act revealed that the legislature gave judges the discretion to impose jail terms.

“The Penal Code allows those convicted of culpable homicide not amounting to murder or drug possession a maximum jail term of 30 years only,” he said.

This gave judges the option of ordering a jail term of less than 30 years after taking into account mitigating and aggravating factors, he added.

The senior lawyer, who was once a deputy public prosecutor, also voiced concern that long custodial sentences would turn prisons into geriatric centres.

“Are our prison authorities prepared for this eventuality?”

Baljit Sidhu meanwhile noted that life imprisonment for serious offences was initially capped at 20 years but later raised to 30.

“Thirty years after a one-third remission for good behaviour is long,” he said, adding that he had clients who told him they preferred to die than to rot behind prison walls.

He also questioned Liew’s announcement of the 30-year minimum jail term, asking if there was a maximum jail term as well.

“Any long-term custodial sentence must not be disguised as a natural life imprisonment term where prisoners are likely to die there,” he added.

He urged the government to gather feedback from the Malaysian Bar and other relevant parties before deciding on the sentence in place of the death penalty.

Ramesh Sivakumar meanwhile said Malaysian prisons were not ideal rehabilitation centres, like those in developed countries.

“I doubt young prisoners will turn over a new leaf even if they are given parole due to the deficiencies in the present system,” he added.

He also warned that prisons could become overcrowded if the death penalty did not serve as a deterrent to reduce serious crimes.

“The government has to allocate more funds to build and maintain jails,” he said, adding that it had to ensure there was no risk to the lives of inmates, failing which it could be exposed to lawsuits.

Sivakumar, who has represented the family members of victims who died in police custody, warned that the prison department had a heavy responsibility to take care of prisoners.