The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (Jan. 19) - News from Singapore last week underlined a nagging and so far unsolved problem facing the Papua New Guinea government.

Singapore recorded the highest number of executions in the world on a per capita basis, outranking China, Saudi Arabia and Sierra Leone, long notorious for their high death penalty rates.

Some 400 people have been hanged in Singapore in the past 13 years.

The death penalty is a subject that has aroused heated debate in Papua New Guinea, and we venture to say will always do so.

Those in favor of this ultimate punishment cite our country's record of willful murder, rape and other serious crimes as evidence that the death penalty should be re-instituted.

Those opposed to the penalty insist that it is inhuman, prone to be wrongly applied, and against God's law.

And they add that no global statistics indicate that executions have a salutary effect on the crime rates.

Certainly PNG must find some kind of answer to the daunting crime statistics.

Neither side in the capital punishment debate will disagree with that conclusion.

But the favored answers are as diverse as those expressed over the death penalty.

There is a certain consensus that aspects of contemporary society encourage the growth of violent crimes.

Anti-death penalty supporters make much more of these factors than do their opponents.

Those opposed to capital punishment cite grinding poverty, the break-down of families and traditional society, urban overcrowding that they claim is leading to ghetto-like living conditions previously unknown in PNG, and a dearth of employment as the main causes of violent crimes.

Fix those issues, they say, and PNG will be well on the road to a solution to the worst of its murder and rape cases.

But those favoring the death penalty have less patience.

They recognize that the solving of those major societal issues is highly desirable, but point out that any positive effects may well be 50 or 100 years away.

They refuse to accept a scenario in which families at random are condemned to suffer at the hands of murderers and rapists while the slow wheels of a civilizing society grind on.

Amnesty International opposes any form of execution, and many other types of treatment categorized by its own organization or by the United Nations as "cruel and unusual" punishment.

Their intentions are at least in theory honorable, but in application, a little naïve.

For is not a woman who has been dragged by a gang from her home, gang-raped repeatedly, then tortured to death the victim of "cruel and unusual" punishment?

And are not the lives of her family and relatives ruined beyond repair?

Papua New Guineans who favor execution would say that the clean and efficient death meted out to persons found guilty of such a crime favors the criminal, and cannot be compared with the unimaginable agonies of the victim.

But in turn, anti-capital punishment supporters will draw attention to a large list of persons supposedly executed in error, people whose innocence has been conclusively proven after their deaths on the gallows.

This, they say, must not be allowed to happen in PNG.

Unfortunately the time for academic debate is fast disappearing.

We have in PNG our own "death row," a growing number of criminals that has been condemned to death and are, technically at least, awaiting execution.

What does the Government intend to do with these people?

The Courts have found them guilty.

Parliament makes the laws, including those relating to capital punishment which have been on the books for 13 years, but are yet to be put in action.

It is morally untenable, if not actually illegal, for PNG to continue to hold condemned felons in limbo, under daily threat of execution, yet do nothing about carrying out that threat.

Either we have to embrace our apparent convictions, those which resulted in Parliament re-instating the death penalty more than a decade ago, and go ahead and execute these criminals, or we have to get rid of the death penalty and substitute life imprisonment, perhaps with no possibility of release, as an alternative.

What we cannot and must not continue to do is put this difficult situation on the back-burner.

Even that which is on permanent simmer eventually boils over.

January 19, 2004

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