By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 30 (IPS) - In a small dingy community meeting room in Taman Kosas, a depressed working class suburb north of the city of factory workers and petty traders, Rohana Bakar, a 36-year-old mother of two girls, is trying hard to keep her ground.
Bakar tries to explain again but is greeted with cries of scorn and anger. About 30 women, some single mothers, and a dozen children, pack the room.
"We can’t save our kids by hanging the culprits. The death penalty is not the solution. The death penalty has been around for 50 years and but crime cases have soared," she persists in fluent Malay, clutching her six-year-old daughter.
"We must protect our children and teach them to protect themselves, but killing culprits is not going to save out children," she adds in desperation, pleading for support.
The reason they have come together is apparent from a glance at the front pages of the newspapers strewn on the floor. A killer, who it is believed has so far abducted and sexually abused three girls, murdering one of them, is still at large and the mothers are angry and frightened.
"This monster raped, abused and killed Nurin ... he must hang for the heinous crimes," one mother says, pointing to the newspapers on the floor. "We have to protect our kids from this monster ... only death for him will do."
Just as in that fear-filled room, everywhere in the country the debate is raging over how to deal with the gruesome death of nine-year-old Nurin Jazlin abducted in August and held for nearly a month, sexually abused and eventually murdered.
Her body was stuffed in a gym bag and left by a staircase in Petaling Jaya, a suburb south of the city, late September.
Outrage over Nurin’s death has been sharpened because a video camera mounted in the street caught a man on a motorcycle with a bag.
He was filmed leaving the bag with Nurin's body beside a staircase.
But the recording, although taken to the U.S. and enhanced by the FBI, is not clear enough to identify the culprit or his vehicle registration number.
Police have up to now drawn blanks, arresting several "suspects" and releasing them later. The public mood is for vengeance and a swift execution when the killer is eventually brought to justice.
A few lone voices like Bakar are speaking up to argue that the death penalty is a cruel, state-sanctioned public killing that does not solve or remove gangsters and criminals from the streets.
"We are outraged by the brutal murder. This is a disgusting and terrifying crime and a sad reflection of how unsafe our country has become for girls and (the) young," said Shanon Shah Sidik, executive director of Amnesty International in Malaysia.
"Public outrage in this matter is understandable but calls for the death penalty to be applied are misplaced.
"Countless men and women have been executed worldwide for crimes of murder and sexual violence yet there is no convincing evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent.
"The nation mourns Nurin Jazlin. Let us never have to mourn another girl in these circumstances ever again," he argued.
But such words only invite more expression of public outrage.
People are writing to newspapers and calling up television and radio stations to say that "monsters" who kill children should be swiftly led away to their execution.
"Criminals who committed sexual crimes and murder should be given the death penalty," writes S. K. Mathews, a member of the public, in a letter to Malaysiakini.com, an independent online news provider.
"These monsters do not deserve to be among us in society," he continues, reflecting widely held public views. "The death penalty should remain."
Rising violent crime is fuelling demands for tough measures against criminals and many see the death penalty as the cure for all ills.
"The public are angry and upset because nearly nine women are raped every day and many see the death penalty as a quick solution," says opposition leader Lim Guan Eng.
"We must not rush to condemn," he says, advocating studies to determine the root causes of rising crime.
"There is no one-solution-fits-all here," he says, adding that the experience of other countries showed that crime was a complex issue and needed to be treated professionally.
In the first seven months of this year, there were 1,814 cases of rape compared to 1,362 during the corresponding period last year – an increase of 33 percent, according to official statistics.
But there were five times as many unreported rape cases, making Malaysia the "crime capital" of Southeast Asia, Lim says.
Malaysia imposes the death penalty for a raft of crimes from murder to drug trafficking (of more than 200 grams), terrorism and even poisoning of the water supply. Between 1960 and October 2004, there were 434 executions, according to the last available statistics.
"Malaysia should not execute, should not carry out state killing no matter what the crime," said human rights lawyer Charles Hector. "There is simply no justification for the state to kill."
The Malaysian Bar, which represents 13,000 lawyers, passed a resolution in 2006, urging Malaysia to emulate the Philippines, a fellow member of the ASEAN regional grouping, to abolish the death penalty.
"At the very least it can declare a moratorium with a view to abolishing the death penalty," Hector told IPS.
Human rights lawyer and executive director of Malaysians Against Death Penalty, MADPET, Surendran Nagarajan said the organisation recognized the "seriousness of violent crime and the extreme suffering it causes to victims and their families," but it was totally against the death penalty.
"It is a cruel, inhumane and degrading punishment," he told IPS. "There is possibility of judicial errors and the innocent would be killed."
He blamed politicians for the current hysteria among the public for the retention and use of the death penalty.
"This is the usual knee-jerk reaction fuelled by politicians who are exploiting public fear and revulsion at crimes against children," Nagarajan said. "We should not fall for this manufactured hysteria."