Malaysia’s Parliament Tuesday passed two bills reforming death penalty sentencing and abolishing the mandatory death penalty for certain offenses. Human rights groups welcomed the move as a step towards abolishing capital punishment entirely.
The Abolition of Mandatory Death Penalty Bill 2023 and the Revision of Sentence of Death and Imprisonment for Natural Life Bill 2023 give judges discretion to choose between the death penalty and life imprisonment for certain offences and remove the death penalty entirely for others. The new legislation will also allow those on death row or with life imprisonment to apply for resentencing within 90 days of the bills being signed into law.
Prior to the legislation, Malaysia imposed a mandatory death penalty for a range of crimes, including drug trafficking, murder, treason and certain firearms offences. Human rights activists have long argued that the mandatory death penalty is inherently cruel and inhumane, with some experts stating:
The death penalty is incompatible with fundamental tenets of human rights and dignity. We reiterate that the mandatory use of the death penalty constitutes an arbitrary deprivation of life and is a fundamental infringement upon the independence of judiciary and fair trial guarantees.
Despite these changes, the new law retains the death penalty for drug trafficking charges. In Malaysia, more than half of death row inmates are charged with drug related offences. The legislation also preserves caning as a punishment, which many experts believe constitutes torture under international human rights law. Nevertheless, putting an end to the mandatory death penalty signals a move to conforming with international human rights norms in a region where capital punishment is largely permitted. In Southeast Asia, Cambodia and the Philippines are the only countries to have abolished capital punishment entirely.