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Death penalty deprives victims of justice

HONG KONG (SE): In the wake of an announcement by the government in Indonesia that it plans to execute a further 16 convicted drug traffickers after the celebration of Eid’l Fitr, the end of the holy fast of Ramadan, Pope Francis has come out strongly against the death penalty.

“Rendering justice does not mean seeking punishment for its own sake, but ensuring the basic purpose of all punishment is the rehabilitation of the offender,” he said in a message to the Sixth World Congress Against the Death Penalty being held in Oslo, Norway, on June 21.

The pope added that the death penalty denies all hope, which is the one element that can make punishment meaningful.

He said that if hope is excluded, the punishment ceases to be about rendering justice to the victims of any crime the person committed, but simply becomes a form of vengeance.

He went further in his condemnation of the death penalty, calling it a form of torture, not punishment, as it is cruelty for its own sake without any room for hope.

“It is not consonant with any just purpose of punishment,” Pope Francis told the coalition of around 140 organisations worldwide gathered in Oslo.

Indonesia has 152 people on death row and although it has not released the names of those it intends to line up before the firing squad at the end of Ramadan, it is believed that the bulk of the 16 will be small time drug smugglers or mules.

One of the most celebrated among them is Filipino former migrant worker, Mary Jane Veloso. However, Migrante International said in a statement from Manila that it is confident that Veloso will not be on the list.

The Philippine government is currently trying those whom Veloso alleges tricked her into carrying the drugs and Migrante does not believe that Jakarta will renege on his undertaking to delay a final decision on her execution until the results of the trial are finalised.

She has already received one reprieve, as she was the ninth on the list for April 29 last year when eight people met their deaths, but the emergence of her case in Manila prompted the authorities to postpone her execution.

She was arrested in possession of heroin in Yogyakarta in 2010. At her trial she was painted as a knowing drug mule, but advocacy groups in The Philippines claim that she was a gullible young woman from a poor background who believed that she was being sent to a job in Malaysia.

In a letter presented to Pope Francis in May this year by the coordinator of the prison chaplaincy in Hong Kong, Reverend Edwin Ng Wing-hung, a convicted drug mule doing time in Shek Pik wrote, “We and our families are the big losers, while the nets of the drug traffickers remain unbroken as they carry on freely with business.”

The brother of Myuran Sukumaran, who stood before the guns in Indonesia on April 29 last year, said that he knows his brother’s death was a waste and did not solve anything about the drug trade.

He said that people can be executed every week or every day and it will still not stop anything, as those who die are not the primary culprits.

Father Bobby dela Cruz, from the Restorative Justice Ministry in Manila, agrees.

He says that big time corruption is the fundamental problem and in his country of The Philippines it is most evident in the dysfunctionality of the justice system.

He told Radyo Veritas on June 21 that big time drug bosses are not afraid of being caught, as it is so simple for them to bribe magistrates and law enforcement agencies.

“There is no need to revive the death penalty,” he said. “The solution is just to enforce the laws.”

During the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, visitors arriving at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino Airport were welcomed by a huge sign bearing the word DEATH (to drug traffickers), which stood in stark contrast to the gaily decorated Mabuhay (long life) greetings scattered around the terminal.

The threat had little if any effect on the flow of drugs through one of its busiest trade routes in the world.

However, the death penalty in The Philippines was suspended in 2006 during the regime of Macapagal-Arroyo by an overwhelming majority in the congress. Critics, however, accused her of acting to placate the Church and win her a few favours at the Vatican.

Nevertheless, the strong belief in The Philippines that violence is the answer to all problems has seen the election of the ruthless mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, who apart from promising to fill Manila Bay with bodies from extrajudicial murders wants to reintroduce a legal death penalty.

The bishops of the country, for whom the new president has little time, intend to challenge him on this matter and Archbishop Ramon Arguelles argues strongly that the death penalty has never been a deterrent to crime.

Duterte has already announced that he knows the Church will oppose his plan and has vowed to ignore its pleas.

Father dela Cruz is himself a former drug user and objects to the death penalty because he says that it deprives the human spirit of the opportunity of transformation.

Pope Francis concluded by saying that rendering justice means ensuring that the basic purpose of all punishment is the rehabilitation of the offender.

“The question must be dealt with within the larger framework of a system of penal justice open to the possibility of the guilty party’s reinsertion in society,” he concluded.

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