Malaysia’s parliament on Monday passed sweeping legal reforms to remove the mandatory death penalty, trim the number of offenses punishable by death, and abolish natural-life prison sentences, a move cautiously welcomed by rights groups.
Malaysia has had a moratorium on executions since 2018, when it first promised to abolish capital punishment entirely.
The government, however, faced political pressure from some parties and rowed back on the pledge a year later, saying it would retain the death penalty but allow courts to replace it with other punishments at their discretion.
Under the amendments passed, alternatives to the death penalty include whipping and imprisonment of between 30 to 40 years. The new jail term will replace all previous provisions that call for imprisonment for the duration of the offender’s natural life.
Life imprisonment sentences, defined by Malaysian law as a fixed term of 30 years, will be retained.
Capital punishment will also be removed as an option for some serious crimes that do not cause death, such as discharging and trafficking of a firearm and kidnapping.
Malaysia’s move comes even as some Southeast Asian neighbors have stepped up use of capital punishment, with Singapore last year executing 11 people for drug offenses and military-ruled Myanmar carrying out its first death sentences in decades against four anti-junta activists.
Malaysia’s Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh said capital punishment was an irreversible sentence and had been an ineffective deterrent.
“The death penalty has not brought about the results it was intended to bring,” he said in wrapping up parliamentary debates on the measures.
The amendments passed apply to 34 offenses currently punishable by death, including murder and drug trafficking. Eleven of those carry it as a mandatory punishment.
More than 1,300 people facing the death penalty or imprisonment for natural life – including those who have exhausted all other legal appeals – can seek a sentencing review under the new rules.
Dobby Chew, executive coordinator at the Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network, said passage of the amendments was a good first step towards total abolition of capital punishment.
“For the most part, we are on the right track for Malaysia – it’s a reform that has been a long time coming,” he said.
“We should not deny the fact that the state is killing someone and whether the state should have this kind of power … having the mandatory punishment abolished is a good time for us to start reflecting about it.”