Catholic Bishops Offer Help in Australia's Bid to End Death Penalty Worldwide

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
27 Oct 2015

Archbishop Denis Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference

Archbishop Denis Hart, President of the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (ACBC) has written to a Federal Government Parliamentary inquiry offering the Church's help for Australia's international efforts to abolish the death penalty.

In a submission by the ACBC to the Parliament's inquiry currently underway into Australia's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide, Archbishop Hart restated the Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty and said the ACBC would be happy to assist the Australian Government where it can to make contacts with appropriate Holy See diplomats.

The ACBC would also be pleased to assist where possible with making representations to other national governments with the assistance of their respective national Catholic Bishops Conferences.

Australian Law has long been unequivocal in its rejection of capital punishment. The last man hanged in Australia was Ronald Ryan in 1967 which was followed by Parliamentary legislation in 1973 prohibiting capital punishment in Australia for any federal crime.

In 2010 the Crime Legislation Amendment (Torture Prohibition and Death Penalty Abolition) Act was passed by the previous Government which prohibited capital punishment in all jurisdictions.

The executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran triggered a groundswell across Australia to abolish the death penalty worldwide

However the push for a worldwide ban on all executions followed the shock execution by firing squad of two of the so-called Bali Nine, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan on an Indonesian prison island in April this year.

Six other death row inmates were also shot.

In spite of strong representations by the Australian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Julie Bishop as well as the then Prime Minister Tony Abbott  to the newly elected President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo and the nation's ambassador to Australia, the executions went ahead.

Tony Abbott immediately withdrew Australia's ambassador from Jakarta calling the executions of the Australian nationals, who had already served 10 years in prison: "cruel and unnecessary."

Foreign Affairs Minister, Julie Bishop was also deeply upset.

"It is with a heavy heart that I confirm the deaths, in spite of our ongoing efforts right until the last minute to seek a stay of execution, our Australia citizens, Mr Andrew Chan and Mr Myuran Sukumaran, were put to death early this morning," she announced in the early hours of 29 April.

In addition to Australia asking for clemency, the governments of France and the European Union also jointly petitioned Indonesia to stop the execution but Joko Widodo kept his hardline stance insisting on the death penalty for all drug criminals. He also let it be known that a further 64 executions would take place later this year.

Myuran Sukumaran turned his life around during his 10 years in prison teaching art and helping other prisoners

The deaths of the two young men resonated across Australia particularly as both men had not only shown remorse for the crime of drug smuggling committed when they were just 19 and 20 but in their 10 years in Indonesian prisons had become rehabilitated. Myuran Sukumaran had become an acclaimed artist who gave regular art classes to his fellow prisoners. Andrew Chan had turned to God and become an ordained minister and a key figure in helping many of his fellow prisoners turn away from crime and by encouraging them with job skills and self esteem, find a positive new future once they were released.

The executions of the two Australians deeply affected many Australians including Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop who asked the Australian Parliament's Joint Standing Committee for Foreign Affairs Defence and Trade to hold an Inquiry into Australia's Advocacy for the Abolition of the Death Penalty in July this year.

Andrew also turned his life around and was ordained a pastor bringing comfort and care to fellow inmates

Submissions to the Inquiry which closed on 2 October have been received from a wide range of individuals and organisations including Amnesty International, the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, the Law Council of Australia, the Federal Police, World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Law Centre, Aussies against Capital Punishment, Reprieve Australia and the Australia's Catholic Bishops.

While Australia's legal position on the death penalty is unequivocal and prohibited for all crimes, no matter how severe, as a nation our advocacy is not as strong as it could be with the Chairman of Parliament's  Human Rights sub-Committee, Philip Ruddock pointing out, that "we need to go beyond an approach where our voice is loudest immediately prior to a planned execution."

Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop instigated Parliamentary Inquiry into the Abolition of the Death Penalty worldwide

Among the many submissions received, a major suggestion has been for human rights to be invoked when advocating for the abolition of the death penalty, making it clear that execution for any crime is against the basic principles of international human rights and that the death penalty is also a violation of the right to life.

"Human dignity is the dignity unique to human beings and the basis of all human rights," Archbishop Hart wrote as part of the ACBC's submission to the Inquiry. "The inherent dignity and the right to life of every person must be respected from the moment of conception until natural death. The imposition of the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary for what it does to those found guilty, to their families and to our society."

He pointed out that communities are much richer when they can demonstrate mercy.

"Prison chaplains have a vital role journeying with prisoners to help them turn their lives around. Chaplains are within the prison but not of it. They are a sign of mercy and that society has not given up on the prisoner. They bring hope and can be a window for the wider community into the experience of the jailed person," he said.

The Inquiry is expected to announce its findings before the end of the year.