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Grim reaping

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.

Drug abuse

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.

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14 Responses to “Grim reaping”

  1. Paul says:

    Maybe these people should be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment with very hard labour.

  2. Nicholas.C says:

    As much as I believe that justice should always be tempered with mercy, especially when it comes to the death penalty, I think the idea that the death penalty is savage and irrelevant is only true if humanity was universally civil and values life above all else – something which it isn’t.

    And what is the alternative really? Life in prison? Some would argue that death is more humane than the prospect of spending the entirety of one’s natural life in an abusive prison environment, with no hope of any future.

  3. U-Jean says:

    Death is cheaper than lifelong imprisonment but I don’t think that there is a value that we can place to life.

    I agree with you that the death sentence is judicial revenge. I don’t think that anyone or any institution should have the right to rob another person of their life. Having said that, I also think that one should have the choice on the continuance of their life.

    When it come to capital punishment, silly as this may sound, I think that convicts should be given the choice to either be executed or to be sentenced to lifelong imprisonment. Will this be considered ethical then?

  4. albertzee says:

    I personally think more people who commit major crimes should be put to death, and quicker too. After all, why should the tax payer have to bear the burden of feeding and housing them for life? And what about the victim’s family? They may have lost a breadwinner, and be suffering to survive, while the criminal gets a roof over his or her head, a stipend, food and medical attention. Not fair, kan? Justice is blind and deaf.

  5. Magan says:

    I say death to them – humane or not. They certainly were not humane to their victims and most of these murderers are inherently evil. Save our tax money for better use.

  6. Karcy says:

    While you may not find the death penalty any deterrent in your behaviour, there are many people in the world who lack social empathy and can only understand morality if there is a punishment they want to avoid.

    Children tend to lack empathy, that is why they need to function in a good=reward, bad=punish environment. Some people never really develop empathy.

    If you know people who have criminal tendencies, you’ll know that sometimes, the only way to deter them from committing crimes is “Eh, death punishment lah”. Yes, some societies have done away with capital punishment and functioned well. There are also some societies that have not.

  7. I support the death penalty because it isn’t partially my decision that matters when it comes to religious law, in this case syariah law.

    In the case of murder, the decision lies in the hand of the victim’s family, either to accept cash or see the [murderer] hanged.

    Plus, I would think anyone sick enough to kill a child and stuff them into a duffel bag deserves the death penalty, should Nurin’s parents consent to such punishment.

    I do NOT, however, support the death penalty for drug trafficking.

  8. killthemall says:

    This “soft” attitude towards murderers should stop. Why do we care if death comes painlessly to them? They should suffer, especially child killers and rapists. Death sentence should be a deterrent. So make is as painful as possible. Bring back public executions. Saudi Arabia has it right. We should not waste public money finding humane methods for killing.
    Convicted murderers should be strung up as soon as the appeals have been disposed of. No point waiting some more. We should care more about those who lead crime-free lives and victims of criminal activity.

  9. Tarchornis says:

    That’s a rather dangerous sentiment, executing someone quickly after they are “convicted”.

    Unless you have an infallible judicial system which never makes mistakes (which sadly we don’t), that approach is handing a potentially corrupt police force and judiciary the licence to kill. Intentionally or not.

    There have been many cases of people who were “convicted” but turned out to be innocent later. This is why, despite my burning hatred for those who murder and rape and destroy, despite my wanting to see them suffer what their victims suffered, I can’t quite agree to being so free with the death penalty just yet.

    Not because of any compassion for the criminal, you understand, but because of the possibility that the person the punishment is being meted out to is just a scapegoat for our self-righteous wrath.

    If we allow our thirst for revenge to wrongly execute someone who is innocent, does that make us murderers then? By own standards, would we too then deserve the death penalty?

    All it would take is one mistake.

    What happens then? Say it was an exception and one life is acceptable collateral damage?

    What if it were someone near and dear to you?

    It’s never as simple as all that.

  10. Charles Thomas says:

    There is nothing humane in capital punishment! In some countries, suicide is a crime, but when it comes to capital punishment these very countries have the power to take away a life through capital punishment. They say, on one hand, that suicide or even euthanasia is immoral and unethical but on the other hand, they are ‘baying for blood’ by enforcing capital punishment by calling it Justice. There is no ‘justice’ here. It is vengeance, ‘an eye for an eye’, pure and simple.

    For that matter, embryonic stem-cell research is also considered immoral and unethical in these very countries, but when capital punishment is called into question, the powers that be always turn a blind eye. What the State has done, be it communist or otherwise, is to usurp the power of God. They want the populace to toe the line.

    They say capital punishment is a deterrent. Hogwash! There is no evidence in penal science or sociological literature to verify this claim. These demagogic tyrants, who call themselves politicians, who claim to supposedly look out for the ‘greater good’ have agendas which are Machiavellian is nature.

    To call ourselves a civilized people now is to be a bit too premature in reality. Humans have a long way to go to realize that ALL life is sacred. Morality and ethics has taken a back seat to ‘justice’!

  11. sphinz says:

    I think death is too quick/’good’ a sentence for these criminals. A suitable punishment for murder is life sentence in an isolated cell with no contact with the rest of humanity a la Monte Cristo!

  12. Gary Shim says:

    In an ideal world, there would be no crimes, and we wouldn’t have to think about justice and punishment. But that’s not likely to ever happen, so we need to know the best way to manage those who would harm others.
    I don’t care to take another person’s life, even if it appears to be just punishment. Rather, I think they should be made to spend the rest of their lives working for the benefit of the victim’s family. This could be via money earned from doing prison-supervised jobs. I remember a time when prisoners used to make furniture, and mattresses, which were sold to the public. A portion of the money earned could be channeled to the victim’s family.
    Also, a lot of community gotong royong could be done by prisoners, so that they get some satisfaction in knowing they are doing something good for the community.
    What’s the point in killing them? It serves no purpose.

  13. Sumat says:

    To murder a murderer is not less a murder.

  14. Alexander says:

    Why can’t people just get along?


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