Capital punishment: Where and why it’s practiced in Asia
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Capital punishment: Where and why it’s practiced in Asia

The planned executions of nine prisoners on death row in Indonesia has drawn focus back to the contentious political and social issues of capital punishment around the globe, but most particularly in Asia where it is still widely used. This article will look into some of the factors at play such as public opinion, religion, the types of crimes punishable and the reasons it is or isn’t being used.

While Fiji (included as part of the wider Asia-Pacific region) became the 99th country in February 2015 to abolish the death penalty and Asia has increasingly moved towards abolition, as a region it is actually the highest enforcer of the death penalty. While figures are swayed by China’s statistics – it executes more people than the rest of the world put together (actual figures are a state secret) – there has been a momentum shift in recent years back towards the death penalty as the result of terror attacks, brutal rape cases, a growth in right wing politics and the perceived threat of drug offences.

Despite a previous moratorium, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam resumed executions in 2013. Indonesia has executed six people this year and is expected execute nine more in the near future, with more to follow. Pakistan has put 18 people to death so far in 2015. Of the nine countries that have continuously executed in each of the past five years, three are from Asia – Bangaldesh, China and North Korea.

For an overview of the situation see this 2014 report from Amnesty International:

The full report is available here.  A summary of executions in Asia from the report was listed as follows:


At least 37 executions were reported to have been carried out in 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific region:

Afghanistan (2), Bangladesh (2), China (+), India (1), Indonesia (5), Japan (8), Malaysia (2+), North Korea(+), Taiwan (6), Viet Nam (7+). This figure does not include thousands of executions believed to have taken place in China.

At least 1,030 new death sentences were known to have been imposed in 17 countries in the region in 2013:

Afghanistan (174), Bangladesh (220+), China (+), India (72+), Indonesia (16+), Japan (5), Laos (3+), Malaysia (76+), Maldives (13), North Korea (+), Pakistan (226+), Singapore (1+), South Korea (2), Sri Lanka (13+), Taiwan (7), Thailand (50+), Viet Nam (148+)

Where it’s practiced

From Wikipedia on the “use of capital punishment by country”:

Of the 57 independent countries in the Asia-Pacific region that are UN member or observer states: (Note – Taiwan is not recognized by the UN as a country, so it is not counted in the statistics below, although it is included for information in the Asia-Pacific table)

20 (35%) have abolished it.

2 (4%) retain it for crimes committed in exceptional circumstances (such as in time of war).

12 (21%) permit its use for ordinary crimes, but have not used it for at least 10 years and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions, or it is under a moratorium.

23 (40%) maintain the death penalty in both law and practice.

The information above is accurate as of 2015, when Fiji abolished the death penalty.

In 2013, Asia had the worlds four leading practitioners of capital punishment – China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. China continues to execute more people than the rest of the world put together. The most recent countries to abolish capital punishment in the Asia-Pacific region are; Timor-Leste (2002), Bhutan (2004), Samoa (2004), Philippines (2006), Kyrgyzstan (2007), Uzbekistan (2008), Mongolia (2012), and Fiji (2015).

Why it’s practiced

The penalty is enforced throughout Asia for crimes such as adultery, blasphemy, economic crimes, rape, aggravated robbery, treason and crimes against the state, drugs, porn, murder, corruption, and watching banned videos, among other things.

Using Indonesia as a case in point, Death Penalty Worldwide lists 17 crimes punishable by death that include:

Murder, other offenses resulting in death (aggravated robbery), terrorism related offenses resulting in death, terrorism offenses not resulting in death, robbery not resulting in death, drug trafficking not resulting in death, drug possession, economic crimes not resulting in death, treason, espionage, military offenses not resulting in death, war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, other offenses not resulting in death (chemical weapons).

Wikipedia’s listing for “use of capital punishment by country” outlines the methods, penalties and history of capital punishment throughout the region. Some entries include:


Shooting; lethal injection. China carries out far more executions than all of the rest of the world combined, and is the only country in the world that routinely executes thousands of people every year. On 25 February 2011 China’s newly revised Criminal Law reduced the number of crimes punishable by death by 13, from 68 to 55. Among these are embezzlement, rape (particularly of children), fraud, bombing, people trafficking, piracy, corruption, arson, murder, poaching, endangerment of national security and terrorism. Even the higher sections of Chinese society are not exempt from the death penalty, as a billionaire was recently put to death. See also capital punishment in the People’s Republic of China.

Hong Kong and  Macau, have separate legal systems and have abolished the death penalty. In Hong Kong it was abolished in 1993 by the then British colonial government, and last used in 1966 (see capital punishment in Hong Kong). In Macau it was last used in the 19th century and abolished in 1976 when Portugal abolished the death penalty on all its territories (see capital punishment in Macau).


Hanging. Death penalty for murder; instigating a minor’s or an idiot’s suicide; treason; acts of terrorism; a second conviction for drug trafficking, aircraft hijacking, aggravated robbery, treason, aggravated rape and drug smuggling under aggravated circumstances; abetting sati, mutiny and its abetting; causing explosions which can endanger life or property and a few military offences like desertion. Military offences may be punished with a firing squad.


Firing squad. Death penalty for murder; drug trafficking; terrorism.


Hanging. Treason; murder. Prosecutors push for the death penalty only in the case of multiple murders, or single murder with aggravating circumstances.[116] Judges usually impose death penalty in case of multiple homicides. Between 1946 and 2003 766 people were sentenced to death, 608 of whom were executed. For 40 months from 1989 to 1993 successive ministers of justice refused to authorise executions, which amounted to an informal moratorium.

Arguments for the death penalty

In countries like Indonesia, the government has taken a hard line stance against drug offenders based on their belief it will deter further crimes of the same nature and punishment is needed for the numbers of people whose lives it ruins. They have also drawn a distinction between their efforts to prevent its own citizens being executed overseas and people they categorise as terrorists or mass murderers. President Joko Widodo announced in December 2014 he would not grant clemency to 64 people on death row for drug crimes. Australians Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan are amongst those slated for execution in the near future. Four Indonesians, a Ghanian, Nigerian and Brazilian may also be executed with them.

Other arguments for the death penalty are for a punishment to fit the crime, that it will provide closure and vindication for victims, deterrence and prevention of reoffending, an incentive to help police, and that public opinion demands it. It is also the case that while some countries retain the death penalty, the understanding is it is to be used in extreme cases only and many have not exercised the law for some time. For example, the last execution in Papua New Guinea was in 1954, but it voted in 2013 to introduce the death penalty for rape, robbery and sorcery-related murder.

Arguments against the death penalty

Amnesty International provides a full list of reasons it opposes the death penalty. These include unfair trials within skewed justice systems, offences by juveniles or those not responsible for their acts through drug use or mental illness, discrimination, mistakes over innocence, discrimination, use as a political tool, it brutalises society, trials/executions conducted in secrecy, the inhumaneness of executions, and its denial of the right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Amnesty also outlines 10 myths about the death penalty and one pertinent to the Indonesian case follows:

Myth 6: The death penalty is an effective deterrent to violent crimes

FACT: There is no convincing evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent to crime. Many murders take place when the perpetrators are under great emotional stress, or under the influence of drugs – times when they are not considering the consequences.

Research has consistently shown that the death penalty does not deter crime more effectively than other punishments.

Public opinion

In Indonesia, there have been recent moves towards abolition and reports have emerged in newspapers criticising President Widodo’s hard-line stance. Widodo is also under pressure to retain his tough guy image and to stand up to foreign influences. Some nation states like China have also routinely listed public opinion as the reason for capital punishment.

The Death Penalty Information Centre has published a variety of polls conducted into public opinion in a range of countries. Those pertinent to Asia include:

Record 85 % of people in Japan favor death penalty The percentage of people in favor of the death penalty has reached a record high, with 85.6 % of survey respondents saying capital punishment is “unavoidable,” according to a government poll released Saturday. About 55 % of respondents described the extension of the statute of limitations for capital crimes, including murder, to 25 years from 15 years in 2005 under the revised Code of Criminal Procedure, as “too short.” Of those who said the period is too short, 49.3 % said the statute of limitations should be abolished, according to the survey. The proportion of respondents in favor of the death penalty rose by 4.2 % points from the previous survey in 2004, indicating that the number of people who hold such a view has been steadily increasing since posting 73.8 % in the 1st survey. Only 5.7 % said the death penalty should be abolished, down 0.3 point from the 2004 poll. (Japan Times, February 7, 2010)

Koreans Favor Cautious Use, Question Benefits to Victim’s Families Results from a state-conducted survey released in March show that 65% of South Koreans believe that the death penalty should remain law. However, only 49% found the practice to be effective in preventing crime, and 58% believed that the country must use caution in administering the punishment. An overwhelming 90% believed that the death penalty provided no benefit for the families of victims. (Korea Times, March 23, 2004)

The Japanese figures were disputed in “Confronting Capital Punishment in Asia: Human Rights, Politics and Public Opinion” edited by Roger Hood, Surya Deva who noted further studies on the issue that found citizens had no strong feeling one way or the other and the government needed to better inform the public about capital punishment.

In China and Japan and no doubt in India one of the most prevalent arguments is that public opinion demands the death penalty. In China and Japan this appears to be taken for granted and even when evidence is brought forward to challenge this assumption, it is largely ignored, not only by the media but also by academics and administrators. As Michelle Miao notes: ‘It is commonly asserted that the general public has a blind faith in capital punishment in China. The Chinese authorities insist that resorting to the death penalty is necessary to appease growing public anger in highly publicised cases involving murder and other grave crimes’.

Does religion play a part?

Islam largely accepts capital punishment and those nations that practice strict Sharia law are more highly associated with its use. In Islamic countries beheading, firing squad, hanging and stoning are common methods of execution. However an article by the BBC on religious views on capital punishment noted a growing abolitionist Islamic view on capital punishment.

There is generally considered no unified opinion under Buddhist policy on capital punishment. Burma (Myanmar) for example has a moratorium on executions at present, the last execution in 1993. Bhutan abolished capital punishment in 2004. Sri Lanka practices a retentionist policy but has not executed anyone since 1976.

South Korea, which has seen a rise in Christianity and a revival of Buddhism, has an unofficial moratorium on executions since 1998. However the death penalty is in effect for murder, rebellion, treason, and robbery-homicide. Christians have argued both for and against the death penalty throughout history, and while it was previously held largely as necessary, this has been largely reversed in the Christian world, although the USA remains one of the highest enforcers of capital punishment.

Hinduism has no official line on capital punishment but largely opposes killing, violence and revenge. India, while officially a secular, pluralistic democracy, has revivalist Hindu undercurrents. Capital punishment has been retained in India but the Supreme Court has ruled it be only used in the rarest of cases. However the recent horrific rapes in the country have revived the debate about it.