An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Mines & Petroleum
Award for Essays & Journalism
IN recent years Papua New Guinea experienced an upsurge of violent crimes where many people were killed and murdered, especially those most vulnerable in society including women, girls and children.
Cities and towns were gradually becoming unsafe as well as sprouting hotspots for criminals, hooligans and ‘raskols’ who plied their trade amidst a backdrop of ever-deteriorating law and order.
Constantly hitting national and international media headlines was an awful litany of murders committed under the pretext of sorcery, tribal feuds and the rape and killing of innocent women and girls.
These stories reached a point where they were creating much embarrassment for the government as well as increasing tensions in the general population, equally frustrated and fed-up for having to put up with these atrocities.
In early 2014, then Justice Minister and Attorney-General, Kerenga Kua, announced the government’s unprecedented decision on implementing the death penalty as a drastic measure to deter and control these heinous crimes.
What he said was received with mixed feelings provoked debate across PNG and received worldwide attention.
The issue of whether it is appropriate to introduce death penalty is a matter for all citizens of this nation to decide for themselves.
What I want to do here is capture and present factual information, wide ranging views and recorded experiences to enable an informed decision that best suits PNG.
The idea of State-sanctioned killing is not new, it has been practised for centuries by countries in all continents. Australia abolished the death penalty as recently as 1973.
At present 78 countries still embrace its use whilst 177 countries, including most South Pacific nations, have abolished it. Interestingly, Tonga imposed the death penalty by hanging three people in 1982.
Capital punishment has been practiced throughout the world for centuries. In most instances, executions were conducted in public view. Punishment was often brutal: boiling to death; slow slicing; burning at the stake; crucifixion; crushing; disembowelment; decapitation.
In tribal societies such as PNG, capital punishment was applied for serious social breaches. When mediation failed, sorcery and traditional weapons were used to kill the offender.
More humane execution methods which inflict less pain are now preferred: France developed the guillotine as a quick fix towards the end of 18th century where the blade would fall upon a victim’s neck; hanging caused death through instantly severing the spinal cord after a long drop.
Capital punishment in Papua New Guinea is legal. In August 1991, Parliament voted in favour to reintroduce the death penalty after a series of violent crimes prompted a public outcry for tougher action. Section 299(2) of the Criminal Code enunciates that the death penalty is to be administered “by hanging the offender by his neck until he is dead.”
Through ensuing years, several people were tried, convicted and sentenced to death. But no execution has occurred owing to the fact that administrative processes were not established.
In early 2004, then Justice Minister, Mark Maipakai said: “The administrative mechanisms have not been attended to yet. Such include the place of execution, the construction of the structure to hang, who is to be the executor, the rights of certain persons to view the execution, the appeal process and adequate facilities to accommodate detainees on death row, etc.”
Discussions on the death penalty re-emerged after a young mother accused of sorcery was burned to death in Mount Hagen. On that fateful morning of 6 February 2013, Kepari Leniata was mercilessly burned at the stake in full public view.
This barbaric act triggered condemnation from around the world and PNG’s image and reputation was severely tainted. The United Nations called for more appropriate legislations to curb violence against women and Amnesty International demanded an end to such killings.
Consequently, the O’Neill government acted swiftly by abolishing the Sorcery Act 1971 and reintroducing capital punishment.
Payback killings also remain common amongst tribal communities where customary and cultural practices have great influence.
PNG considers itself a Christian nation. Approximately two-thirds of the population are associated with major Christian denominations. Others continue to practice their traditional beliefs.
On this basis, many people view capital punishment as against the moral teachings of the Bible, which specifically commands not to kill another. Whether or not the Sixth Commandment includes the State is best left for theologians to interpret and dissect.
However, the legal position in PNG is crystal clear as statutes such as the Defence Act and the Criminal Code Act specifically provide for death as the highest penalty for crimes such as mutiny, treason and wilful murder.
In 2006, the Supreme Court pronounced in the case of Steven Loke Ume vs The State (2006) SC 836, that the death penalty ought to be applied under eight categories considered to be the worst types. These included the killing of children and old and disabled persons as well as murder in the course of committing crimes such as rape or robbery.
The international community does not agree with PNG over the death penalty. Amnesty International is actively advocating against its use, describing it as violating a fundamental right to life without any proof of reducing violence.
Studies in the United States have demonstrated time and again that the death penalty is not having any significant impact on deterring serious crimes. It is in fact expensive to administer and maintain. Instead, it is argued, limited financial resources should be diverted towards programs actively combating violence before it occurs.
One pressing question every law abiding citizen should ask is this: if the government cannot maintain existing infrastructure, effectively deal with corruption, and improve the welfare and standard of living of its citizens, how can it possibly maintain mechanisms that facilitate capital punishment?