Malaysia backtracks on plans to abolish death penalty

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Malaysia's government backtracked Wednesday on abolishing capital punishment, saying instead that the death penalty would no longer be mandatory for selected offenses. Rights groups slammed the reversal and urged it to reconsider.

Deputy Law Minister Hanipa Maidin made the announcement in parliament but didn't give any reasons for the change. He was quoted by the country's Bernama news agency as saying the death penalty would not be mandatory for 11 offenses but courts would have discretion to impose such sentences for those crimes.

N. Surendran, adviser to rights group Lawyers for Liberty, said it was a "complete U-turn" from the government's announcement in October that it planned to abolish the death penalty for all of the nearly three dozen offenses for which it was applicable.

The total abolition plan had been widely praised internationally and he said the sudden reversal was "shocking, unprincipled and embarrassing." He said it appeared to be motivated by fear of a political backlash and slammed the government for "moral cowardice."

"In short, the government sacrificed principle on the altar of political expediency," he said in a statement. He urged the government to reconsider its decision. He said the death penalty is not a deterrent for serious crime and noted that a wrongful conviction is irreversible.

The Malaysian Coalition Against the Death Penalty echoed the call for the government to review its decision. The group voiced concern that there are no protections for the vulnerable and no sentencing guidelines for the court to consider in deciding whether to hand down a death sentence.

"So long as the death penalty exists within our system, there is no guarantee that an innocent or vulnerable person will not be wrongly sentenced and executed," it said.

The two groups also urged the government to maintain its current moratorium on all executions and review the case of every prisoner on death row.

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This story has been edited to correct that courts will be given discretion to hand down the death sentence for the 11 offenses.

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