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The death penalty may be final but it's not foolproof and won't stop terrorism

By Greg Barns - posted Thursday, 21 August 2003

The understandable desire by the Australian community to see the end of the sickening smiling face of Bali bomber Amrozi bin Nurhasyim is no excuse for condoning the use of the death penalty. John Howard and Simon Crean should not be making exceptions in this case. They should argue for life imprisonment for Amrozi and make the point that just as the death penalty is not part of the law in Australia nor should it be in Indonesia.

Sentencing Amrozi and those of his ilk to death simply makes them heroes in the minds of some in the world who see anyone and any country that does not follow their warped mindset as being corrupt and evil. For this reason alone, one wonders why the Prime Minister and Mr Crean, along with elements of the Australian media are so keen on seeing it happen in this case.

But there is a broader issue here. If politicians and the community are prepared to sanction the death penalty in some cases where Australians have been killed or maimed, this might eventually lead to pressure for the reintroduction of the death penalty for certain crimes in Australia.


On the latter point, if Amrozi and his fellow perpetrators had carried out their terrorist act on Australian soil, one can imagine the enormous pressure that the Howard government might have felt to legislate for the death penalty in the case of acts of terrorism. This is not a far-fetched scenario if one examines the UK's experience with the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1974, after a spate of IRA bombings in Northern Ireland and in England, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Willie Whitelaw, came under intense public and political pressure to reintroduce the death penalty for those convicted of perpetrating the bombings that were killing, literally, hundreds of people. He resisted the political kudos that would have come if he had recommended to his Prime Minister Edward Heath that the death penalty should come back onto the statute books for terrorists. As a former political foe, Roy Jenkins, said in July 1999 on the occasion of Whitelaw's death, although the latter "had been in favour of the death penalty [he] became convinced in Northern Ireland that it would make the problem worse rather than better".

Whitelaw was right. And John Howard and Simon Crean and those Australians who are not prepared to argue against the death penalty for Amrozi or any other perpetrator of terrorism should heed this lesson of history. In Whitelaw's view to hang convicted IRA bombers would simply strengthen the cause of that group in Northern Ireland. Secondly, and perhaps of greater weight, is the fact that given the large numbers of people often involved in the various stages of a terrorist act there can be miscarriages of justice - in short, innocent people are sent to their deaths.

In fact, it was the strength of the second argument that meant even when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was at the height of her powers after the horrific bombing at the Conservative Party conference at Brighton in 1984, she could not convince her Party to support the reintroduction of the death penalty for terrorist crimes.

And it is well that she did not succeed. As the trials of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six demonstrated, innocent people got convicted for terrorist offences. The 10 accused in these cases were convicted for their part in IRA bombings during the 1970s - in 1989 in the case of the Guildford Four and in 1991 in the case of the Birmingham Six, the UK Court of Appeal overturned the convictions because the authorities framed the accused. If Mrs Thatcher had been successful in her death penalty campaign these men could have been sent to their deaths.

And so it might be in Indonesia or any other country where Australians are killed as a result of terrorism. In the case of Amrozi the evidence seems clear but there may well be future cases where people are wrongly convicted and sentenced to death. If the miscarriage of justice is subsequently discovered, how will Mr Howard and the Australian media feel if they have stood by and watched innocent people go to their death?


The death penalty is always wrong - anytime and anywhere. Mr Howard, Mr Crean and the media here should be saying so loud and clear, even now.

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Greg Barns is National President of the Australian Lawyers Alliance.

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