Capital punishment in Papua New Guinea: a review

PNG Correctional Service headquarters in Port Moresby (Credit: Moses Sakai)
Written by Moses Sakai

Capital punishment is a sensitive issue in Papua New Guinea (PNG). While laws have been put in place to introduce the death penalty, they have not been used. In July 2019, Prime Minister James Marape said the PNG Parliament would continue to debate whether the death penalty is maintained in the Criminal Code. This post provides a review of the legislation, and makes some recommendations.

The last execution in PNG was carried out in 1954. In 1970, the Australian Government completely abolished the death penalty in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

The death penalty was reintroduced in Parliament on 28 August 1991 as an amendment to the Criminal Code 1974 (Consolidated to No 12 of 1993), specifically for wilful murder. This was in response to worsening law and order problems, including a high rate of violent crimes particularly rape and murder. Despite opposition to the death penalty and the bill introduced by then Prime Minister Sir Rabbie Namaliu, then Justice Minister the late Sir Bernard Narokobi and a few other parliamentary leaders, it passed into law with 48 members of the parliament voting in favour and 19 against; 42 members were absent.

In 2013, the government amended the Criminal Code Act (Amendment No 6 of 2013) by introducing three additional forms of serious crimes punishable by death, namely killings related to accusations of sorcery (section 299A), aggravated rape (section 347C), and robbery (section 386). The amendments were made in response to rising levels of crimes in these categories. One incident in particular prompted the government to act: the brutal murder of young Leniata Kepari, who was tortured and burned alive after being accused of killing a six-year-old child through sorcery. This made headlines worldwide, went viral on social media, and was widely condemned.

Despite these amendments, no executions have actually been carried out in PNG. In fact, PNG has been given the status of “abolitionist de facto”, a definition adopted by the United Nations for countries that retain the death penalty but have not carried out executions during the past ten years.

However, in 2015 it was reported that Cabinet had endorsed guidelines for the implementation of the death penalty. Internationally, PNG has consistently voted against or abstained from UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.

Currently, there are 16 people on death row in PNG. There is pressure from international organisations for Papua New Guinea to abolish the death penalty. Amnesty International has repeatedly urged the PNG Government to abolish the death penalty and to look for other measures to deter violent crimes. It has argued that the implementation of the death penalty contradicts section 36 of the PNG Constitution which states that, “No person shall be submitted to torture … or to treatment or punishment that is cruel or otherwise inhuman, or is inconsistent with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”.

The death penalty is in violation of international treaties to which PNG is a signatory such as article 6 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is articulated in section 39 of the Constitution. Back in 2003, PNG was one of 75 countries that supported the UN Commission on Human Rights in passing a resolution encouraging all countries to abolish the death penalty and establish a moratorium on executions.

The PNG Council of Churches has stated that the death penalty is not a solution and other means must be considered by the government to deter crimes. Churches have argued that PNG is a Christian country, and such laws are against biblical principles.

It has also been argued that any execution would put the executioner(s) at a high risk of death themselves and could even lead to more violence as part of PNG’s “payback” culture.

It is unclear if and when the government will ever implement capital punishment. Work has been undertaken on implementation, but does not appear to be complete. Some senior politicians still appear to have reservations about the issue.

Overall, despite several attempts, PNG has been unsuccessful in implementing the death penalty. Whatever one’s views on capital punishment, experience suggests that the death penalty is not a real option in PNG. It can be introduced on paper, but not in reality. Other ways need to be found to deter serious crimes.

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Moses Sakai

Moses Sakai is a tutor at the University of Papua New Guinea's School of Business and Public Policy.

3 Comments

  • Thank you Mr Moses Sakai for this blog post on a most interesting topic.

    I have three questions.

    I was interested to read that the current Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea (PNG), James Marape, seems to be saying that there should be consideration of whether or not the death penalty should remain in the criminal code. Indeed, in the article you give a hyperlink to, he said in July this year that “I will allow Justice Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Davis Steven to pick up this conversation and for us to decide whether we still maintain the death penalty or shift away from that to life imprisonment.” This seems to suggest that Marape may be in favour of dropping the death penalty. Is that your reading of his view on the matter? How does his position differ from the stance that was held by former Prime Minister Peter O’Neill? Perhaps the current head of state is less firm about the need to enforce the death penalty. Is that correct? What is your analysis of that?

    The second question is about the so-called ‘study tour’ that was made a few years back I think into the possible execution methods that could be used if PNG wants to carry out the death penalty. I believe the team went to a few different countries to see how it is done elsewhere. It is an awful topic really, but what became of that? Presumably this multi-country tour cost PNG a lot of money and yet nothing has come of it. Am I correct?

    My third question is about PNG’s position in the international community on this issue. You state that “PNG has consistently voted against or abstained from UN General Assembly resolutions calling for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty”. That seems to suggest that PNG’s position generally is one of resisting calls for the abolition of the death penalty. However, you also state “Back in 2003, PNG was one of 75 countries that supported the UN Commission on Human Rights in passing a resolution encouraging all countries to abolish the death penalty and establish a moratorium on executions.” This seems to go against the earlier comment, or perhaps I have misunderstood, or maybe this occasion was an exception to the general practice of PNG in regard to most votes on the matter. Could you please explain this point?

    Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece.

    Dr Amanda H A Watson

    • Hi Dr Amanda Watson. Thanks for the questions.

      Making decisions as politicians and bureaucrats to terminate a person’s life who has been convicted of crimes punishable by death is a very difficult and tough choice. It means you are making decisions to determine whether that person (a human being like yourself) must be killed or not based on the law.

      Since the re-introduction of the death penalty in PNG till now, both politicians and senior bureaucrats responsible for this issue, when answering questions relating to the death penalty especially on PUBLIC MEDIA, they seem to speak for themselves rather than being the office holders, they speak with sympathy for those convicted ones and they speak to defend themselves and not the law. Two obvious phrases that they would use are ‘PNG being the Christian Country’ and ‘life imprisonment’ and I think that’s exactly how PMJM responded to the Hon Parkop’s questions concerning the 10 people who are on death row. But PMJM made very good points by proposing to convert prison camps to an industry and of course to impose life imprisonment instead for those on death row.

      The so-called ‘study tour’ (also known as fact-finding mission) has cost US$600,000 according to the current deputy PM and justice minister the Hon Steven Davis, which is quite a lot of money and could have been used to convert prison camps to an industry suggested by PMJM earlier. They toured several countries in Asia and I think in the USA (a prison in the State of California) in 2008 despite the UN Human Rights Resolution in 2003 on the death penalty that PNG with 74 countries voted in favour to abolish the death penalty and establish a moratorium on executions. I think time and money could have been saved for better use if the government had complied with 2003 UNHR resolution and perhaps provided better recommendations in terms of whether to abolish the death penalty or impose life imprisonment instead.

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