PNG to review death penalty

The crowd at the lynching of Kepari Leniata in the PNG Highlands in 2013. (Supplied) Source: a

Papua New Guinea is reviewing plans to begin executing death row prisoners after the international outrage over executions of eight people, including two Australians, in Indonesia.

Papua New Guinea is reviewing plans to begin executing death-row prisoners.

Prime Minister Peter O'Neill backed the reintroduction of capital punishment two years ago but has now referred the issue to for review.

PNG's parliament will debate the death penalty next week but human rights lawyers and NGOs said capital punishment was the wrong solution to a complex problem

"Papua New Guineans are very unhappy about it, especially on the women's side of things," said Cassandra Rangip, co-founder of the Leniata Legacy, an anti-gender-based violence advocacy group set up in memory of a 20-year-old mother who suffered a horrific death. 

Kepari Leniata was accused of sorcery by the relatives of a dead boy. She was tortured, bound and thrown onto a rubbish dump before being doused in petrol and set alight.

The story and graphic pictures of her death were published around the world.

It was just one of countless violent and often deadly assaults on women in PNG.

"I would describe it as a war zone," Ms Rangip said.

“When you have the level of violence that you have: hackings, dismemberment of limbs, babies being raped.

"They're crimes like you have in a war zone."

After Kepari Leniata's death in Feburary 2013, the Papua New Guinea government took the final step in reintroducing the death penalty, a process that had been underway since 2005.

"Anybody who reintroduces the death penalty, or lifts a defacto moratorium, is moving against the trend," said barrister and patron of Australians Against Capital Punishment, Stephen Keim.

The decision was reinforced in September 2013 when there was further outrage an Australian trekking party was attacked in PNG, leaving three local porters dead.

Mr O'Neill called for the perpetrators to be executed.

"What politicians seem to do is say, 'The public are up in arms about this terrible event that has happened, we don't want to lose votes over it, so we'll take some simplistic short-term step, which will suit us but really won't help the problem in the long term'," Mr Keim said.

“Obviously problems with crime, problems with cultural issues, problems with drug trafficking - they all require quite complex solutions. Resorting to this simplistic barbaric solution is never any help in solving the problem."

"Anybody who reintroduces the death penalty, or lifts a defacto moratorium, is moving against the trend."

Papua New Guinea's last execution was under Australian colonial rule in the 1950s and capital punishment was abolished just before independence in the 1970s.

It was reintroduced in 1991 for wilful murder but not acted on until after Ms Leniata's death, the law was amended.

Thirteen men are on death row and were due to be executed before the end of this year.

PNG law allows for execution by hanging, lethal injection, strangulation, electrocution and firing squad.

After the international outrage over Indonesia’s recent executions, Mr O'Neill sensed the mood as president Jokowi Widodo visited PNG this month.

"During our discussions we informed him of our to review those clauses in our law, which will be debated in the current session of parliament and we will get some outcomes out of those debates, but of course we respect their laws and their sovereignty and we will take it on from there,” Mr O’Neill said.

A number of PNG citizens are currently in Indonesian prisons on drug charges and could face death.

Mr O'Neill said he understood the situation facing the Indonesian leader, but he neither sought nor gave any advice about application of the death penalty.

“In very general terms of course, he's got his own challenges about drug issues in his own country and we understand the difficulties that he's going through,” Mr O’Neill said.

Leniata Legacy wanted crime prevention rather than a fatal deterrent.

“When you have 59 per cent of women in your country as survivors of rape and sexual assault and two in three women have experienced violence, and that's not just in their home from partners or ex-partners, but that's in the street, at work, the village, all levels of their life."

“We are having systematic failure in the police, they have no capacity to call for help, and if you call they will ask you to pay for their petrol.”

Mr Keim said Australia had a responsibility too. 

"Australia as a signatory to the Second Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is committed to doing everything it can within its power, including in its jurisdiction, to stop capital punishment,“ he said.
“I think it should be an important part of our foreign policy in influence a move away from capital punishment, and particularly in countries where we have historical links like PNG."

When asked about the matter, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop in a statement to SBS: "Australia has stated both publicly and privately that we oppose the death penalty at home and abroad".

Mr O'Neill said it was up to PNG's parliament to debate and decide what happened next.

"We've had no representations from anyone. It is our own initiative because Papua New Guinea is a very religious and very Christian country, so it is based principally on those foundations,” he said.

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