Literature News

Solemn stories of death sentences beg for action

Malaysian publishing house FIXI sent The Daily Seni over to Scotland to scope out the Edinburgh International Book Festival and other happenings which have traditionally taken place throughout August in the capital city. This is part of a series of reports on arts and culture in Edinburgh.

MONGOLIA is set to abolish capital punishment from its legal system next month. Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan is offering the people the choice of having the death penalty back, mere weeks after detaining over 40 journalists. North Korea doesn’t think its affairs are any of our business.

The death penalty is polarising when one considers the millions around the world in favour of capital punishment. Australia and the Netherlands for example lie on the abolitionists side of the spectrum but approximately a quarter of people across both countries still support the death sentence for severe criminal acts.

Often, an external party can facilitate departure from capital punishment. One of the biggest campaigners for ending the death penalty worldwide is Amnesty International. Founded in 1961 as a vehicle for public opinion on human rights abuses such as torture, it won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1977 and is now the second-oldest human rights organisation after the International Federation for Human Rights.

Bright voices and solemn stories

An important resident of the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Amnesty International has a very important task this year. It is reading the stories and writings of persecuted writers from the world over, to whoever’s fortunate enough to reserve a seat at the session. Here in the Charlotte Square Gardens at a quarter past five every evening, representatives from the organisation get together with renowned authors to stir a myriad of themes related to its cause. Topics range from celebrated figures like Malala Yousafzai to problem regions like Iran.

Attendees heard from four special guests on a particular sunny Wednesday evening: Carnegie Medal-nominee Miriam Halahmy, designerauthor David F. Ross, journalist turned author Chitra Ramaswamy, and Professor Dan Gunn, who co-edited a collection of Samuel Beckett‘s letters to be published next month.

Visiting “A Place of Execution” with steady, stoic voices, each reader took audiences through writings from death row. There were a number of harrowing tales at the table read. In fact, two belonged to people who have already been executed.

Delara Darabi was a 22-year old Iranian woman executed by the state in 2009, while Napoleon Beazley was executed in Texas in 2002. Both were charged with murders committed as juveniles.

Then aged seventeen, Delara first confessed to the murder of her father’s cousin, but later stated that her nineteen-year old boyfriend — sentenced to a decade in prison as an accessory to the crime — convinced her to plead guilty as his age would have warranted him a death sentence. Delara was also made to serve five years in prison for theft before her sentence took place, but during this time she made artworks and wrote poems which left prison and found a following. One of these poems, simply-titled Prison, was read out by Miriam Halahmy.

I want to give you another name
Who read this name for the first time?
What was the bird of his thoughts searching for?
How far did it soar
Until it viewed this abyss?
What did it see?
That it felt the void
The void of a sensation called freedom…

Prison, Delara Darabi

Delara is one of many individuals put to death in Iran, which until today issues death sentences to under-eighteens. Though there have been many campaigns to prevent executions in Iran, only few are successful. It’s similar across the Middle East and countries like Saudi Arabia, but perhaps most surprising is the United States.

Napoleon Beazley was 17 when he tried to steal a car with two accomplices and in the process shot a 63-year old businessman named John Luttig and his wife. Luttig died, his wife played dead, Beazley’s friends testified, and the State of Texas sentenced him to execution by lethal injection while both accomplices received life sentences. Complicating affairs was the fact that the victim was the father of a Federal Judge.

Eight years after the crime was committed, Beazley was executed, becoming one of last few juveniles put on death row in the United States.

Seeing eye to eye

As each author went through their chosen pieces, they also provided reason to abolish the death penalty. It’s inhumane to inflict so much trauma on another human being. It’s a grave violation of human rights. It brutalises society.

Malaysia however continues to practice mandatory death sentences for twelve offenses including drug trafficking, treason and murder.

Rather interestingly, a 2013 study by Richard Hood from Oxford University‘s Centre of Criminology revealed the extent to which Malaysians agreed with capital punishment. The study, conducted on 1,535 individuals, pointed that Malaysians had different attitudes towards capital punishment in theory and in practice. When presented with various scenarios, respondents considered the nature of the crime before voting, which impacted their preference for the death penalty. Only 12% of respondents expressed their support for a mandatory death penalty on all crimes involving drug trafficking, murder and firearms as presented in the study, whereas 22% did not see the death penalty appropriate.

Things might be looking up on our shores. In June this year, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Nancy Shukri told the World Congress Against The Death Penalty that a study on capital punishment in Malaysia had been completed, and that Malaysia is moving closer to amending its legislation. But this piece of news reported in The Star also drew negative response — a total 52% of readers voted “angry” or “annoyed” from the possibility. Most recently, Ipoh Barat parliament member M. Kulasegaran posted an open letter on Malaysiakini in which he expressed that capital punishment has been unsuccessful in deterring crime. Speaking at Amnesty International’s event in Ipoh last week, he pushed for abolition of the death penalty.


Calling on attendees to go onto Amnesty International’s website to join the fight against the death penalty, our authors at the Baillie Gifford Corner Theatre understand the necessity of expressing and raising awareness for the issue. In fact, last year saw a spike in the number of executions worldwide — a worrying fact given how far we’ve progressed as society.

Taking action can start as simply as diving into Amnesty International’s official listings and looking up issues and causes which require urgent attention. For instance, did you know that albino people in Malawi are hunted for their body parts to be used in witchcraft? Have you heard about the horrors of Syrian prisons? And don’t doubt how much you can achieve with something as simple as an online petition: non-profit organisation Stop Child Executions collected over 350,000 signatures worldwide and pressured the Iranian government into releasing Nazanin Fatehi, a 17-year old Iranian girl sentenced to death after murdering her alleged rapist. Got a bit more time? Write a letter and address it to people on death row, let them know they’re not alone.

“We’re exercising our freedom of expression on behalf of those who cannot,” an Amnesty International representative says , “140 countries have become abolitionist, let’s make the world free from executions.”

Indeed, let’s make the world free from killings. Get started by visiting Amnesty International’s website and trust that the rest will follow.

What do you think?

Are there crimes that deserve to be punished with a death sentence?
I don’t believe in “punishment”.



For more information on the Edinburgh Book Festival, make sure to head to the official site and Facebook!

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