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Why capital punishment is a bad idea for Cambodia

Why capital punishment is a bad idea for Cambodia

F irst Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh has called for murderers and drug traffickers

to be killed by the State. Former Cambodian Defenders Project director Francis

James argues that's a bad idea.

SAM Saroeun is a lucky man.

On March 21, 1995, Sam Saroeun was released from T3 Prison after his defender successfully

argued that he was an unwilling participant in a robbery and acted under duress.

Sam Saroeun, a father of four, had been forced to drive a getaway car and was detained

in prison for over six months. He had been charged in a bungled gold heist at a jewelry

shop near Psar Thmei that resulted in the death of the shop owner's son and a robber.

The Phnom Penh Post reported on his release in its March 24 - April 6, 1995 issue,

"Taxi Driver Happy to see the End of a 'Very Bad Day.'"

Sam Saroeun was fortunate because Judge Nob Sophorn listened carefully to the arguments

of Touch Bora, Sam Sarouen's defender. But Sam Sarouen was even luckier because the

events occurred earlier this year. If First Prime Minister Prince Ranariddh had his

way, Sam Sarouen, and others similarly situated, might one day face the death penalty

and be executed.

Last week, Ranariddh proposed reinstating the death penalty for serious crimes including

drug smuggling, murder, and those who commit murder in the process of kidnapping

or robbery. Sam Saroun would have fallen in the latter category. The irony of the

announcement, made after a Buddhist prayer ceremony honoring the dead and on the

eve of the second anniversary of the Cambodian Constitution - which strictly bans

capital punishment - was not lost on human rights and legal observers, locally and


"In countries in our region, capital punishment is not new," said Ly Thuch,

chief of the First Prime Minister's cabinet. "We are a poor country and do not

have the means to protect our people," he said, noting that the death penalty

was seen as a strong deterrent to crime.

Neighboring countries in the region do indeed have the death penalty. Vietnam regularly

executes convicted offenders, as does Burman and China. Thailand, however, comonly

commutes each death sentence to a life sentence. On the other hand, twenty-eight

countries around the world - comprising a variety of legal systems and types of governments

- have abolished the death penalty altogether.

Additionally, some countries which have had periods of intense violence, genocide

or political repression, such as Germany, Argentina and Portugal, have attempted

to abolish the use of the death penalty for all ordinary crimes. The UN itself opposes

capital punishment by affirming that "... in order to fully guarantee the right

to life, as provided for in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Righs,

the main objective to be pursued is that of progressively restricting the number

of offenses for which capital punishment may be imposed, with a view to the desirability

of abolishing this punishment in all countries."

The popular notion that executions are a deterrent to murder appears to be as strong

as ever. But is it really? Let's take a closer look. Statistics issued last year

in the United States where 38 states have the death penalty reveal that capital punishment

does not act as a deterent at all. In fact, states that have the death penalty consistently

have an equal or higher rate of crime than those states that don't have the death

penalty. The popularity of capital punishment rests on the tradition of just retribution

for heinous crimes. But is Cambodia ready to sanction a "bullet to the back

of the head" so soon after its genocidal past? Cambodia has had enough death

and destruction. The constitution expressly saw this and forbade state-sponsored

killing. The death penalty is never a life for a life, only another death.

Only a very small percentage of murders are planned or premeditated. Most murders

occur over emotional trauma or in the heat of the moment. When going out to rob,

most robbers do not plan on killing their victims. Shots are fired and people are

killed if something goes wrong and someone panics. Death for drug trafficking would

not solve the burgeoning Cambodian drug problem either.

People will continue to deal with drugs because of the enormous potential economic

gains. Address pressing economic problems first, and then people will be less enticed

by the easy money drug trafficking promises. Capital punishment is not a one-stop

easy solution to serious crime.

One can evaluate capital punishment by anwering a few basic questions about its effectiveness.

What is the goal of the death penalty? To reduce crime. Does the death penalty reduce

crime? No.

In the United States, states that have reinstated the death penalty have not observed

a decrease in their crime rates. A recent research poll of police chiefs in the United

States found that the majority of the chiefs do not believe that the death penalty

is an effective law enforcement tool.

Is capital punishment the best way to achieve this goal? No. Longer prison sentences

have the same impact on crime as the death penalty. In fact, in the United States,

public support for the death penalty drops below half when voters are offered alternative

sentences. More people support alternatives to the death penalty, such as a life

sentence without parole plus restitution to the vicitm's family, than would choose

the death penalty.

Is instituting the death penalty the cheapest way to achieve a reduction in crime?

No. In the United States, a murder trial where the death penalty is a sentencing

option costs up to six times as much as a life-sentence trial. The irreversibility

of the death sentence requires courts to follow "heightened due process"

in the preparation and course of the trial. In the state of North Carolina for example,

a defendant has the right to two lawyers instead of one. More expert witnesses are

required. More legal briefs are filed. After conviction, there are nine steps in

the appeals process, and some can be repeated.

With less than one percent of the national budget going to the Ministry of Justice

and Cambodia's court system, an expensive and ineffective policy such as the death

penalty would hardly survive budgetary scrutiny. Moreover, this assumes that Cambodia's

courts are prepared, equipped and capable of following a "heightened due process."

Today, Sam Sarouen is a free man. He can provide for his family and play with his

four children. Earlier this year, Sarouen had a "very bad day" but fortunately

he wasn't found guilty and sentenced to 16 years as the co-defendants were. Pity

the poor person who receives Cambodia's first death sentence. That day will be a

very bad day for Cambodia indeed.


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