Page 4196 - Week 13 - Wednesday, 16 November 2005

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At least up until 2003 the federal government maintained this principled opposition to the death penalty. Both in August and December 2002, the federal government condemned the use of the death penalty in Nigeria and Vietnam with respect to convicted Australian nationals in these territories. On these matters the Australian foreign affairs minister, Alexander Downer, issued a media release stating:

The Australian government is universally and consistently opposed to the use of capital punishment in any circumstances. The death penalty is an inhumane form of punishment that violates the most fundamental human right: the right to life.

This statement was consistent with earlier statements from the Prime Minister in 2001, when he stated that Australia had a “pragmatic opposition to the death penalty that is based on the belief that from time to time the law makes mistakes and you cannot bring someone back after you have executed them”. However, recent comments from prominent Australian politicians demonstrate a shift away from these commitments, with many refusing to condemn the death penalty for terrorists and dictators. On more than one occasion the Prime Minister has stated that he would not protest the death penalty under Indonesian law for the Bali bombers and in March 2003, on US television, the Prime Minister further stated that everybody would “welcome the death penalty for Osama Bin Laden”, a statement supported by the foreign minister, Alexander Downer.

It seems that since the first Bali bombing in October 2002, the federal government’s stance on the death penalty has shifted. It would seem that, at least with respect to terrorist offences, the federal government is willing to acquiesce to foreign punitive schemes that impose the death sentence. At most, it has supported the use of the death penalty overseas.

This stance distances Australia’s longstanding and principled opposition to the death penalty. It undermines Australia’s international commitment to abolishing it and diminishes Australia’s ability to seek clemency for Australian nationals on death row overseas. These comments have split Australia’s commitment to abolishing the death penalty. This commitment is split between active opposition with respect to Australian citizens overseas, but at the same time is marked by the execution of selected non-citizens. Ultimately, this has become a policy of selective opposition to capital punishment instead of the principled opposition to it that we have maintained for so long.

It is concerning that the federal government’s endorsement of this policy of selective opposition has only recently been reaffirmed, this time in the prosecution of Zhang Long, the man suspected of murdering University of Canberra student Zhang Hong Jie, also known as Steffi, whose body was tragically found in her Belconnen flat six months after her death. Long is being held in custody in China after handing himself in for the crime and could face the death penalty, should he be convicted.

One of the problems facing Chinese authorities trying to prosecute Long is that because the alleged crime occurred in the ACT the evidence required to convict him remains with the ACT police. Presently Australian law prohibits the federal government from providing mutual assistance in criminal matters where an accused is likely to face the death penalty. Section 8 (1A) of the Commonwealth Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Act 1987 states:

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