Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The launch of the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network

Amnesty International Australia launched the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) today as part of World Day Against the Death Penalty.

ADPAN, which consists of "activists, NGOs and lawyers from many countries across the region will support national and regional campaigns to end capital punishment".

Tim Goodwin, AI Australia's Anti-Death Penalty Campaign Coordinator, reports on this "new Asian coalition which will campaign for an end to executions"...........

Coalition for an end to executions

People have different reasons for campaigning against the death penalty. So when I met Yoo In-tae at a regional anti-death penalty meeting in Hong Kong, I didn't ask why he was leading the current push in South Korea to abolish this brutal punishment.

It was enough to know that as a Member of Parliament he had introduced the latest abolition bills in South Korea's National Assembly and that he was building support for a final vote. I didn't know that 32 years ago he was nearly hanged.

Yoo In-tae was sentenced to death by a military court in 1974 for violating martial law. He was tortured into giving a false confession and sentenced to death along with eight other people. The following morning those eight people were executed.

I have been working against the death penalty in Asia for many years, but his speech and story still shocked me. There was the injustice of his trial, and the brutal deaths of the people he had sat with in the dock. There was the hideous lottery of life and death that we still see in nearly every active death penalty system in the world.

Yoo In-tae spent four and a half years on death row, and during that harrowing time he was supported by an Amnesty International campaign. Today Amnesty International South Korea is working with him in the campaign for abolition.

Regional activism

Amnesty International convened the Hong Kong meeting, held in July 2006, to address the lack of regional organisations and human rights frameworks to help build momentum for abolition. This region has the highest execution rate in the world and is resisting the worldwide trend towards abolition, which is why we need a stronger, regional voice against the death penalty.

The meeting brought together Amnesty International researchers, the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty and campaigners from Mongolia, India, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Australia. About half of the participants were from Amnesty International sections and half from a range of legal, religious and human rights groups.

A significant part of the meeting was set aside for presentations from each country to build up a picture of the trends across the region and the common issues we need to address.

Participants from the Philippines described their recent success in abolishing the death penalty, which culminated on 6 June in a vote for abolition in both houses of Congress. This victory was the outcome of several years' work in building coalitions, raising awareness across the country and lobbying at all levels of government and the bureaucracy. It lent a welcome air of hope to our meeting.

Sharing concerns

Conversely, in India in recent years the government has taken a retrograde step in applying the death penalty to a wider range of crimes, including terrorism and drug offences. In the eyes of many activists, the death penalty is being used politically - as an attempt to demonstrate a tough stance on crime and to distract attention from the failures of India's criminal justice system.

Activists from Mongolia, Singapore, Japan and India spoke of the difficult task of generating debate about the death penalty when government secrecy prevents the real story from being told. One participant would have broken the law if she had told us how many people were executed in her country and how they were killed.

The governments of India and Singapore will not confirm how many people they have executed. In Japan, even a prisoner may not know he is about to be executed.

These presentations reminded me of two contradictions: first, that the death penalty is needed to deter crime even though that penalty is kept largely hidden from the community, including from would-be criminals; and second, that governments claim they retain the death penalty because of demand from the public, even though the public is never properly informed about it or able to discuss it.

When my turn came, I described last year's unprecedented campaign against the execution of Van Tuong Nguyen in Singapore, with widespread support from the public, parliamentarians and other organisations. I described Amnesty International's longstanding concern - illustrated by Van Tuong Nguyen's case - that the Australian Government could not mount a credible argument against individual executions if it did not take a consistent and principled position against the death penalty everywhere.

I described how we had worked with the victims of both terrorist violence and drugs in our campaign, and argued that we must continue to counter the claim that the death penalty is a necessary response to the drug trade.

Forming a network

A number of common themes emerged from the presentations, including:

* drugs and the death penalty
* transparency and secrecy
* mandatory penalties
* public awareness
* unfair trials, including national security cases
* working with the victims of crime, and
* building coalitions, including with legal, religious and women's organisations

There was consensus on the need to work together and internationalise our concerns about the death penalty. We need to create an Asian regional voice for change. We agreed to form the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network (ADPAN) to exchange information, coordinate activities and begin working on these common issues.

ADPAN will be launched on 10 October, the World Day Against the Death Penalty, with a range of individual and group activities in as many countries as possible across Asia. I left the meeting with a great sense of hope that ADPAN will help build bridges between abolitionists across Asia and produce a more effective campaign within the region.

I also left with a sense of encouragement about the work we are doing in Australia. The Singapore participants said our campaigning had encouraged their efforts, and that its echoes are still being heard across the region.

As an abolitionist country, Australia is in a unique position to support anti-death penalty campaigns across Asia, although we still need to continue raising awareness in our own community about the cruelty and injustice of the death penalty.

Finally, I was reinforced in my conviction that Amnesty International plays a unique and valuable role in the global abolitionist campaign. We initiated the meeting and are supporting the formation of ADPAN. In at least six countries in Asia our colleagues are playing leading roles in coalitions against the death penalty.

We still have a long way to go in Asia, but these new connections will certainly strengthen our work for a world, and a region, without executions.
Read the 2004 Amnesty International report Singapore - Death Penalty: A Hidden Toll of Executions

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