The National

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (July 18, 2011) – The year 1964 was the last time a convicted felon was executed in Papua New Guinea.

Back in those pre-independence days, the law accommodated the need for society to see criminals pay in full for particularly shocking crimes.

The death penalty was an option open to judges to consider as the ultimate punishment for heinous acts that were, in part, about ridding society of the scum masquerading as human beings; exacting complete obedience to the laws from the populace and, in turn, keeping people on the moral straight and narrow.

It is 2011 and the law has not changed. Judges are still allowed this extreme measure in cases where they believe it is warranted.

Last week, in Kokopo, National Court judge Justice Don Sawong found it an appropriate toll for five men to pay for their part in a case which involved multiple homicides.

Further exacerbating the charge of wilful murder brought on the five was the fact that it was done with premeditation.

The men were convicted for killing eight innocent people (six passengers and two crew members) on board the Palex, a motorised dinghy used to ferry customers to and from the Duke of York Islands and Kokopo.

What transpired on Sept 26, 2007, can best be described as a simple payback plan that went from bad to worse.

Hatched by ring leader Gregory Kiapkot, in collusion with four associates, the plan was supposedly to settle a feud he had with the owners of the Palex.

Court papers say Kiapkot and his accomplices, in two boats, actioned their deadly in which they ambushed the Palex on open seas at Makada Point in the Duke of York Islands.

They killed in cold blood the skipper of the Palex along with his crew member.

The double-murder was witnessed by the shocked passengers, including two women, of the Palex who, in turn, were summarily executed and thrown to sea after being robbed. Only two bodies were recovered in days following the killings.

The rest we can safely assume are lost for good.

Their grieving relatives will never be accorded the peace of burying their loved ones nor will there be proper closure for them on this gruesome episode, only the pain of knowing that their dearest had the terrible luck of being on the Palex that day.

They were, in fact, collateral damage.

Evidence gathered by police states that all five killers admitted to not knowing any of the passengers or having any prior relationship with them.

The perpetrators had murdered six strangers on the pretext of concealing their initial crime. This secondary act was what may have tipped the scale in favour of the death penalty.

Sawong stated in court papers, dated July 14, that he considered the manner in which the murders were committed to be sufficient cause for handing down the strongest punishment available to him. This decision was not taken lightly.

Indeed, court papers state that after extensive, and exhaustive, interviews and investigations by police with the help of the community, Sawong was satisfied that the gravity of the crime was such that he was left with no choice.

Mitigating circumstances, such as the one claimed by the five men that they were first-time offenders; hand standing in the community, had families and were intoxicated at the time, did not sway Sawong.

In principle, Sawong’s decision was as much a matter of personal preference as it was one which the public demanded or the law allowed.

Similar crimes have been committed by individuals in the annals of PNG history and similar sentences have been meted out.

The question is: Will the death penalty be actually implemented?

It has not been done in 47 years despite several judges deciding over the years that it was the fitting punishment for law-breakers.

Few countries in the world today have government-sanctioned execution as part of their law. Many western nations have phased it out.

Times have changed with governments adopting an approach that it is better to institutionalise and attempting to correct criminal behaviour through prison sentences rather than having the final solution.

Arguments for and against the death penalty are abound.

However in PNG, the law has not changed and law-makers and legislators have never tried to abolish or modify the penalty.

Instead, excuses such as the expense, who will be the hangman, how will the procedure be carried out (the mechanics), what will the family of the death row inmate have in terms of compensation and similar concerns have created a headache that the law itself cannot address.

We wonder if judges take this into account when they make judgments based on the law.

We are still waiting for someone or a group to make a definitive decision or statement to that effect.

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