“Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life.
Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager
to deal out death in judgement.
For even the very wise cannot see all ends.“
– Gandalf the Grey in The Lord of the Rings
THERE was a mondo-film released in the late 1970s that became popular on video here in the 1980s, called Faces of Death. It was a cult favourite that included recreated and stock footage of death scenes, including several forms of capital punishment being carried out.
I was horrified. But I was also intrigued by the different methods used to execute prisoners over the years, and at why some methods were considered “better” — I use the term loosely here — than others.
(Pic by spekulator / sxc.hu) According to an Amnesty International report, Death Sentences and Executions in 2008, at least 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries last year. The report also states that 59 countries retain the death penalty, and that methods used include beheading, stoning, hanging, lethal injection, shooting, and electrocution.
In Malaysia, the chosen method for judicial execution is by hanging as provided for in Section 281 of the Criminal Procedure Code. It is a sentence that our courts hand out to those convicted of drug trafficking, which is the most common reason; murder; treason; waging war against the king; and acts of terrorism.
The most recent case of a death sentence being passed down for murder was on 9 April 2009, when the High Court in Shah Alam sentenced C/Insp Azilah Hadri and Kpl Sirul Azhar Umar to death in the Altantuya Shaariibuu case.
If these special police officers’ subsequent appeals fail, the sentence will be carried out — they will be strung up and hanged until dead.
If that happens, Azilah and Sirul will join a fairly long line of men and a few women who have tangled with the executioner’s noose. According to available statistics, Malaysia executed 358 people by hanging between 1980 and 2004. Among the more notorious victims were Botak Chin (died 11 June 1981); and Maznah Ismail, better known as Mona Fandey, her husband Mohd Affandi Abdul Rahman, and helper Juraimi Hussin.
The latter three were executed on 2 Nov 2001. Mona Fandey’s case even inspired a film, Dukun, which was never released here. But you can check out the creepy trailer:
The last hanging sentence that was carried out here was that of Hanafi Mat Hassan, the bus driver convicted in the rape and murder of computer engineer Noor Suzaily Mukhtar. His sentence was carried out on 19 Dec 2008 at the Kajang prison.
A good way to die
Putting aside the ethical arguments against the death penalty for a moment, hanging is considered a fairly low-tech and humane way to execute a person. It involves the lethal suspension of a person by ligature using a noose tightened around a person’s neck. It is also one of the most common methods of suicide.
Perhaps the most famous hanging in recent memory was that of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who was executed on 30 Dec 2006.
Prior to hanging, the most popular method of execution was beheading. Though unnecessarily gory, the method has been widely employed for millennia, especially in Europe, as it only required a sword or an axe to carry out. Britain, for instance, has a history of putting its noble-born to the sword, including a few monarchs and a spouse or two.
Sometimes we all lose our head (Pic by madiko83 @ Flickr) The French, of course, mechanised it into an art form with the guillotine, which was actually invented in the 13th century in Britain. But France was the first country to ratify its use on all condemned criminals on the grounds of humanity and equality. It was in use there from 1792 until 1981, when France abolished the death penalty.
Incidentally, the guillotine was apparently the catalyst for the waxwork exhibitions of Madame Tussaud.
Though beheading as a form of capital punishment has mostly been replaced by other forms of capital punishment in most countries, it is still carried out in Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Shoot to kill
Execution by shooting is another popular way to kill condemned prisoners, with 69 countries having it in their books as a lawful method of capital punishment. It was used in the Soviet bloc in the 20th century as the main form of execution. But in most countries, the method was reserved for military use.
When we talk about execution by shooting, the usual image that pops up is that of a firing squad taking aim at a single prisoner. But in reality, many countries that prefers this form of capital punishment use a single shot to the back of the head to carry out the sentence.
Afghanistan carried out the highest number of such executions in the world in 2007. Closer to home, Indonesia uses this method as well.
Shooting, unlike hanging and beheading, is considered a cruel way to die. Death is not instantaneous. More often than not, the condemned person ends up slowly bleeding to death.
Due to the need for guns, adequate ammunition and trained persons to carry out this sentence, this form of killing is especially popular during war.
The execution of 56 Polish citizens in Bochnia, during German occupation of Poland,
December 18, 1939 (Public domain; source: Wikimedia commons)
But shooting is slowly being phased out in favour of lethal injection in some countries, such as Thailand. Even China is moving in this direction, according to Amnesty International’s report.
Lethal injection, according to proponents, is a more humane way to execute a person, though there is considerable debate about this. In a typical case, three drugs are injected into the condemned person: sodium thiopental (to induce unconsciousness), pancuronium bromide (for muscle paralysis and to arrest breathing), and potassium chloride (to stop the heart). The theory is that the person is rendered unconscious first, so he or she is not aware as he or she is dying.
In the US, this has become the preferred method to execute prisoners, with 36 states having it as an option. It has also, for the most part, replaced the use of the electric chair, which was introduced in the US in 1888 as a progressive step in carrying out the death penalty.
But opponents of lethal injection argue that it is hardly humane as it can take a person up to 45 minutes to die.
Gurney that prisoners rest on during an execution by lethal injection
(Public domain; source: Wikimedia commons)Another method, and one that is considerably quicker, is the gas chamber. The Nazis during World War II took executions to perhaps the ultimate level of mechanisation using this method. They built huge gas chambers that put 700 to 800 Jews to death at one time using Zyklon B.
Currently, there are two known countries that execute prisoners using the gas chamber: the US and North Korea. Gas chambers were used in the US to carry out the death penalty from the 1920s onwards, but they have been gradually replaced by other methods. However, some states in the US still have this as an option for condemned prisoners. Watch videos on the gas chamber and other death-inducing methods here.
Prior to writing this article, I did not hold any strong opinions about capital punishment. But in researching the methods of execution, and the reasoning behind them, I’ve come to believe that there is no humane method of executing a person. The common reason given for keeping the death penalty — as just punishment for a heinous crime — doesn’t bear scrutiny.
To me, the death sentence is merely judicial revenge. And revenge is, as philosopher Francis Bacon Sr once said, “a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed it out.”
N Shashi Kala wishes there was a more just punishment for those who would bring evil into this world. Death, in its undiluted, visceral form, is a powerful reminder about how precious life is.