25 October 2019

Lecture on the occasion of the 17th World Day Against the Death Penalty

An Asian and personal perspective on death penalty

On the occasion of the World Day against the Death Penalty on October 10th, the Community of Sant’Egidio together with the Utrecht Centre for Global Challenges, hosted an evening dedicated to the death penalty. Malaysian advocate and solicitor Suzana Norlihan Alias was invited to provide an Asian perspective on the death penalty by sharing her experiences.

The evening started off with an introduction by prof. A.M. van Kalmthout. Until his retirement in 2010, he was a professor in criminal and immigration law at Tilburg University. Dr. van Kalmthout was chairman of the Supervisory Board of the Dutch Probation Institute (Reclassering Nederland) and represented the Netherlands in the European Committee against Torture. He is currently a board member of Penal Reform International.

Humane alternative

During his lectures he addressed the question of life imprisonment as a humane alternative for the death penalty. Life imprisonment is often considered more humane; however this viewpoint was not always dominant . Dr. van Kalmthout illustrated this by sharing a belief which was present during the Enlightenment. During this period of time, life imprisonment was seen as harsher penalty than the death penalty. The innovative general philosophy argued that life imprisonment should be executed in such a way that death during detention would be experienced as an act of mercy. This knowledge sheds new light on the discussion of abolishing the death penalty. Dr. van Kalmthout underlined this matter because abolishing the death penalty implies alternatives for punishing. It should not be forgotten to consider what these alternatives are and what they mean.

Personal experiences

After dr. van Kalmthout shared his relevant questions regarding the abolishment of the death penalty, Ms. Norlihan took over and spoke about her career path and life experiences. Ms. Norlihan studied Law at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. After her studies she was convinced not to work for any law firm because they did not function well. She decided to launch her own firm, which is unusual for Muslim women in Malaysia. In her work Ms. Norlihan stands for fair trials for clients who are often disregarded by other attorneys. Many of them are death penalty cases.

Ms. Norlihan is driven by personal experiences. First her cousin was killed by a drug addict. The event changed her perspective. She realized that nobody has the ability to choose where and how they are born and in which situation. We could for instance all be drug addicts and get caught up in murder. In order to move on from her woeful personal experience, she visited the family of her cousin’s murderer. She said it was heartbreaking and it made her realize she was able to forgive his mother and eventually him. And if it was not enough, a few year later her brother was set up for murder. Because of strict rules, Ms. Norlihan was not allowed to defend her own brother. Without a fair trial, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Up until now he is in jail, living in barbaric life conditions.

Ms. Norlihan was able to turn these awful events into personal drive and motivation. She is dedicating her life fighting against injustices in a way that is inspiring to everyone. Her final message of listening and forgiving in order to establish a peaceful world, was a captivating end of the evening. The Centre for Global Challenges would like to thank Ms. Norlihan and dr. van Kalmthout for sharing their experenices, and the Community of Sant’Egidio for assembling this evening.