Civilised society should abolish capital punishment because it is inhumane, essentially based on a medieval concept of retribution, and risks innocent people being put to death, according to Aquilino Pimentel, a former Philippine senator who played an key role in ending the death penalty in his country in 2006.
Visiting Bangkok at the invitation of Amnesty International Thailand and the Union for Civil Liberty,
the 79-year-old Pimentel urged Thais opposed to capital punishment to keep their “passion” burning, despite hearing that many Thais, including senior Buddhist monks, still support executions.
“A majority of Thais still do not support [abolition of the death penalty],” human rights lawyer Sarawut Prathumraj said. Sarawut told Pimentel that many Thais look back fondly to the 1960s and the era of dictator Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat, who was known for summarily executing people accused of committing arson in public areas.
Thailand’s Human Rights Master Plan for 2009 to 2013 states that the Kingdom aims to abolish capital punishment by the end of the period, but the goal seems far removed from reality, as there is no visible movement towards that end at present.
Pimentel met and addressed the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights, chaired by appointed Senator Somchai Sawaengkarn. Members of the committee exchanged differing views with Pimentel, with one member defending execution by lethal injection – the method practised in Thailand today – as “humane”, and another saying that the death penalty was needed to rid society of its scourges.
Another member told Pimentel that it was not uncommon for some convicts who are sentenced to death to have their sentences commuted and to eventually walk free after a decade or so in prison.
Pimentel argued that the death penalty doesn’t give condemned criminals the opportunity to reform themselves, while the risk of even one person being wrongly executed was too high for a civilised society to bear.
Pimentel said the notion of “an eye for an eye”, also known as the Lex Talionis principle of Roman law, was medieval and not suited for modern society.
“If Lex Talionis were to be used to justify the imposition of the death penalty as an act of retribution, then in those cases of murder or rape, before the criminals are executed, they should first be subjected to the indignities or outright tortures that had been inflicted on the victims so that the criminals undergo the same level of pain as that suffered by the victims,” he said.
The former Philippine senator also cited various works showing that the death penalty had no deterrent effect on criminality.
Somchai said after the meeting with Pimentel that the committee was interested in continuing to debate capital punishment, but added that “some people see the need for the death penalty to deal with those who are beyond [redemption].” He added that a compromise could eventually be struck, such as replacing the death penalty with long prison terms without parole, as is practised in the Philippines today.
Pimentel said that since the death penalty was abolished in his country, heinous crimes that would once have drawn a sentence of death were now punished by imprisonment for 20 to 40 years without parole. Some argue that long jail terms are an even worse punishment than death, he said.
One member of the Senate panel argued that it was better to kill a bird than keep it in a cage without letting it see the Sun, which was cruel and inhumane, like a long prison sentence. Pimentel said he couldn’t answer on behalf of the bird, however.