International human rights activists have condemned plans by the government of Papua New Guinea (PNG) to reinstitute the death penalty in response to rising incidents of crime and violence.
Capital punishment has been in the books in PNG, but has not been imposed since 1954.
PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill claims that the majority of Papuans favor use of the death penalty, particularly in the wake of a flurry of horrific murders – including the beheading and burning alive of a young mother -- recently recorded in the impoverished country.
He has also called for lifetime imprisonment for convicted rapists, and lengthy prison terms for drug-related crimes.
The PNG legal code currently includes treason, piracy and “willful murder” as offenses punishable by death.
"There will be maximum penalties that have never been seen before in this country," O'Neill told PNG media.
"We are serious about addressing this issue. We will regulate and pass laws that some people in our country may find draconian. But the people are demanding it."
He added: "The level of these serious crimes in our community, particularly crimes of sexual nature and murder are unacceptable. The heinous behavior is perpetrated by a few, but the country at large is made to suffer. We must act now to protect the majority. The proposed laws are tough, but they are necessary. We have to address a situation that is destroying our country."
PNG’s opposition lawmakers also support the restoration of the ultimate punishment for crimes of violence.
"Among the methods discussed include death by firing squad, considered more humane and inexpensive than other methods like lethal injection and electrocution," reported the Post-Courier newspaper of PNG.
But Amnesty International counters that PNG would be making a mistake in executing convicted criminals again.
Kate Schutze, Amnesty’s Pacific researcher, told Australian radio that her organization opposes the death penalty in all cases.
“The death penalty is the ultimate denial of human rights, it's premeditated, cold-blooded killing of a human being by the state,” she said.
“So in essence it's state-sanctioned violence.”
Schutze further indicated that some of the recent torture killings reported in PNG were committed upon people accused of “sorcery.” Hence, she asserts that the country’s culture and superstitions need to be addressed, rather than the government using capital punishment as a deterrent to violence.
“[Capital punishment] doesn't address the fear that is prevalent in Papua New Guinea society about sorcery itself,” she said.
“The problem with the violence we're seeing in Papua New Guinea is time and time again the police are failing to intervene -- they do not have the resources or the proper judicial process is not carried through right to the end.”
Indeed, at the core of this issue is PNG’s Sorcery Act, a 1970s law that excuses the murder of people accused of practicing “sorcery” or “witchcraft” or “black magic.” Untold murders (mostly of women) have reportedly been perpetrated over the decades under the guise of killing “sorcerers and “witches.”
Belief in such superstitions are widespread in PNG – the untimely deaths of people, particularly of the young, are often blamed on “sorcery,” leading to violent premeditated attacks, even death, upon the assumed culprit.
But PM O’Neill has also called for the repeal of the Sorcery Law, though, according to reports, the PNG public is less enthusiastic about this proposal than they are about imposing the death penalty.
Meanwhile, church officials in PNG also oppose the death penalty.
"No life will be taken. We do not have the right to do that but we do have the right to better a person's life," said Catholic Archbishop of Port Moresby John Ribat, according to the Daily Telegraph.
PNG’s parliament will consider the new measures in two weeks.
According to Amnesty, in 2012 the number of countries that have abolished the death penalty rose to 97 – up from 80 in 2003. However, in recent years, India, Pakistan, Japan and Gambia have resumed executing convicts following a period of dormancy.