IN 1991 the Papua New Guinea Parliament reintroduced the death penalty. Direct killing by the State became an authorized way to punish a criminal.
In 2013 the Criminal Code was changed to set out the acceptable ways to do it: to hang, suffocate, electrocute, shoot or poison someone with a deadly injection. The government argued that this is the best way to protect society from the repetition of terrible crimes.
When Malipu Balakau, a politician, was murdered in 1989 and when Kepari Leniata was burned to death in 2013, people reacted by saying that the killer deserved to be killed.
It is in response to this political legislation and this popular reaction that we, the bishops of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, are addressing this letter in defence of life to the leaders of our nations but also to all those who want to do what God wants of us and to promote a genuine peace and order in our communities.
The death penalty does not stop serious crime
One reason given for punishing people is to help them change their behaviour, to rehabilitate them, to restore a just relationship with the others so that they can return to the community. The death penalty clearly does not do this. It kills them.
Another reason given is to stop them and others from engaging in criminal activity in the future, to deter them from committing crimes. Killing someone certainly stops that person from committing a future crime because he or she is dead. But it does not stop others from continuing their criminal activity.
For example in Nigeria, after the death penalty was introduced for aggravated robbery, the number of robberies increased. When people commit a crime they think about the benefit they hope to get from doing it, not about what would happen if they get caught.
Especially in Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands, they reason that they will not get caught or charged in court.
Amnesty International has defined the death penalty as “premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a person by the State when that person is helpless and harmless after being arrested and convicted.”
Pope Francis has recently pointed out the difference between defending yourself against an attack and killing someone who has been rendered harmless and is incapable of attacking you.
The death penalty violates the sanctity of human life
The dignity of every human person and the sanctity of every human life are at the centre of Gospel teaching. God created human beings in his image (Gen 1:27). St John wrote that God is love (1 Jn 4:26). We are made in the image of a loving God and so are called to follow the example of Jesus who laid down his life for us as a perfect sign of his love (1 Jn 4:20).
St Pope John XXIII said that God’s creative hand is especially revealed at the moment of conception, at the beginning of a new human life (Mater et Magistra). The life of every person must be respected from conception to natural death.
Killing a killer violates the sanctity of every human life. One wrong does not make it right to do another one. When the death penalty is carried out, the State, in the name of the people, imitates the criminal by itself committing a crime against life.
The death penalty distracts from seeking to solve the causes of crime
It is said that the death penalty will stop serious crime, but it does not even pretend to correct the injustices in society that lead people to commit crimes. The Papua New Guinea Constitution defines one of the national goals as providing equal opportunity for all citizens to benefit from economic development and an equal distribution of resources especially in remote areas (PNG Constitution 2nd National Goal and Directive Principle).
This is not happening. There is not an equal distribution of opportunities. There are many marginalised people. When young people see the exploitation of resources by foreign companies, when they see the misappropriation of public funds by politicians, when they are not able to enjoy the benefit of education and to find employment to be able to improve their lives – they can be tempted to turn to criminal activity as the only alternative.
Imposing the death penalty can make people feel as if they are correcting the causes of crime when they are not. It can keep them from putting energy and resources into addressing the social problems that lead people into crime. There are causes of crime that need to be identified and resolved to create a just and safe community.
The death penalty can lead to wrongful conviction and execution
There is a real possibility of making a mistake and convicting and executing someone who did not commit a crime and is innocent. Research has shown that in the United States between 1900 and 1985, 140 people were executed who later were discovered to be innocent.
In Papua New Guinea, two years after the first person to be given the death penalty as a punishment in court in 1991, that person was declared innocent by the Supreme Court and was released. This is not possible with the death penalty. The death penalty is final. Once someone has been executed his or her life cannot be restored.
It can be fair and just to impose a life imprisonment on someone for a very serious crime. But if that person later is found to be innocent, his or her life can be restored. Again, this is not possible if he or she was killed.
At the same time we encourage those in the criminal justice system to work more diligently to ensure that criminals be arrested, convicted and properly punished. We need to be sensitive to the family of the victim, who rightly call for justice, but a justice that is not revenge. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said that there is no mercy without justice.
The death penalty is payback killing
Payback killing in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands - the practice of killing someone, anyone, from an enemy clan because someone from that clan killed one of your people - is traditionally thought to be a fair way of paying back what was done.
But it often leads to further killing to pay back a payback killing. It does not restore a balance of justice.
The purpose of punishment is not to take revenge, to hurt the person or clan that hurt you. There are court cases in Papua New Guinea where it has been clearly stated that killing someone as a form of payback harms the common good and is contrary to Christian principles. It violates the right to life of every person that is protected in the Constitution.
And yet the death penalty can be described as a form of payback killing performed by the State in the name of the people, taking an eye for an eye and a life for a life. What the State condemns in court, it would be carrying out in practice.
With the many countries that have abolished the death penalty as an extreme act of violence performed in the name of the people and with the teaching of the Catholic Church, we the bishops of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands strongly oppose the use of the death penalty.
It has no place in a Christian country where true justice and mercy should prevail. Where executions are performed by the State, the people develop the attitude that it is acceptable to respond to violence with violence.
We pray that the rejection of this form of public violence will set an example and lead to a rejection of domestic violence and all other forms of violence in our society and open the way to a lasting peace.