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Death penalty for crimes against women may threaten women

Dr Fiona HukulaFIONA HUKULA | National Research Institute

ON 6 February 2013, Papua New Guinea woke up to graphic pictures of Kepari Leniata, a 20 year old woman, being burned in Mt Hagen by a mob of angry people who felt an accusation of sorcery warranted such inhumane punishment.

In April 2013, Helen Rumbali, a teacher and women’s leader from Nagovisi, South Bougainville, was abducted, tortured and subsequently killed because it was believed that she was responsible for the death of a man.

These two horrific events, and the continuous violence that women in Papua New Guinea endure, led to a nationwide protest (the National Haus Krai) on the 14 and 15 May 2013.  The National Haus Krai drew support from Papua New Guineas and friends of PNG living in other parts of the world.

At the National Haus Krai, a petition demanding leadership and action from the government was presented to prime minister Peter O’Neill.

This prompted a reaction from the government in the form of an amendment to sections 299 and 347B of the Criminal Code which now support the application of the death penalty as punishment for wilful murder of a person on account of accusation of sorcery and aggravated rape.

Both amendments directly relate to crimes against women.

I want to look at the issue of deterrence and violence against women and also discuss the practicalities of implementing the death penalty and what repercussions it may have on the everyday lives of women.

First, though, I think it is important to acknowledge that the PNG government is trying to address the issue of violence against women. The question that needs to be asked is whether the implementation of the death penalty will serve its intended purpose of deterrence.

The unvailability of recent data from key agencies such as the Police means we are unable to properly define the level of violent crime against women.

However we all know it is an issue. The media has played a large role in keeping the violence against women on the agenda. This year alone, we saw reports in the media of a number of women raped and mutilated in Lae.

A few weeks ago three female staff of the National Broadcasting Corporation were sexually assaulted after their drop-off bus was held up at Morata.

There are victims and families who have been affected by sorcery deaths and aggravated rape who would like to see the most severe punishment for those perpetrators.

In terms of addressing violence against women in PNG and in the context of applying the death penalty to perpetrators of violent crimes against women, it is important to question whether all the possibilities for punishment have been explored and if implementing the death penalty will truly serve as a deterrent.

Studies in other parts of the world show that capital punishment is not a deterrent for serious crime. But the most important issue for PNG is the state of our current criminal justice system.

For the death penalty to be the final outcome of a case, there needs to be solid evidence to prove beyond reasonable doubt that a person is guilty of aggravated rape or a sorcery related killing.

Otherwise there is a very strong possibility of a miscarriage of justice which is obviously a terrible outcome not only for an innocent person, but also in the context of the wider repercussions for the victim.

Not only will the wrong person be accused and murdered, but the original victim may suffer further in terms of payback or harassment from relatives of the wrongfully accused.

Even if the perpetrator is proven guilty, there is still the possibility that the victim will be the subject of attacks by the family of the culprit.

It is with this in mind that I return to the question of whether enough has been done to strengthen our current criminal justice system so that punishment for crimes against women is enforced.

The public needs to have faith in the criminal justice system for cases to be reported and fair outcome sought.

I also ask if having the death penalty will be more harmful for women.

I highlighted the issue of payback if there is a miscarriage of justice. It could also be that the implementation of the death penalty led to women being killed.

For example, in a case aggravated rape the women may know who her attacker is and actually not live to tell her story.

I have carried out research with approximately 50 sex offenders and the majority of them knew who their victims were. We need to think carefully before any decision is taken. Or women may suffer even more.

From a Constitutional Law Reform Commission forum on the proposed death penalty addressed by Dr Fukula at the University of Papua New Guinea, 13 November 2014


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