Capital punishment - the right to pardon

Capital punishment - the right to pardon

Foreign nationals were among the eight people executed by firing squad after being convicted of illegal drug offences in Indonesia this week.

The adverse international reaction and protests at the deaths were strong and high profile, writes Prince Michael of Liechtenstein.

The European Union was among those which protested and Australia, which had two of its nationals executed, issued a formal protest and staged huge demonstrations on its streets. Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo was asked to stop the executions.

Heads of State have the right to pardon convicted people. This is because the law has to be applied fairly and justly, but the punishment could be out of proportion with the crime in a specific case. The right to pardon is a very noble and humanitarian institution.

It is difficult however for the leader of a country to apply the right to reduce punishment to foreigners when it is seen or perceived to be responding to public pressure from abroad. It looks like losing sovereignty, weakness to international pressure or treating foreigners differently.

Such pleas are more likely to have a satisfactory outcome if these negotiations are carried out discreetly government-to-government, without the attendant publicity demanding the death penalty is lifted.

Such direct negotiations involving inter-governmental relations or discreet intervention by influential people or organisations have proved successful in the past, but the cases received no publicity. The key has been confidentiality, resulting in generosity by the pardoning authority. International public uproar proves to be rather counterproductive and there are many examples of this from Nigeria through Saudi Arabia to China. One specific case of this futility was the execution of alleged plotters in a coup in Nigeria - including the well-known writer Ken Saro-Wiwa - after public protests in London during President Sani Abacha's term (1993-1998).

Capital punishment is used by leading powers including China, the US and India. Drug dealing is a crime carrying the death penalty in a number of countries and is accepted by their populations. The consequences of drug dealing in these countries is well known.

The Australian government may have tried to negotiate without success. But it appears that its public protests were a government illustration of its disapproval for internal and international consumption rather than a measure to really save lives.

President Widodo was also unable to grant a personal pardon, whether he and his government were willing to or not, because it would damage his standing at home as he would be seen to be giving in to foreign pressure.

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