September 12, 2018 05:15:44
It has been more than 50 years since the last person was executed on Australian soil, but the Federal Government is being urged to do more to stop the death penalty in other countries.
- Melbourne lawyer says Australia needs to do more to seek an end to the death penalty
- Foreign Minister Marise Payne due to launch new Government strategy this week
- Family of an Australian woman who could end up on death row say they feel “helpless”
Ronald Ryan was hanged in Victoria in 1967 for the fatal shooting of a prison officer during an escape from Pentridge Prison, but since then, at least eight Australians have been executed by foreign governments.
Former Adelaide woman Lisa Cunningham is now potentially facing the death penalty in the south-western US state of Arizona over the death of her seven-year-old stepdaughter Sanaa.
Melbourne lawyer Nicholas Harrington, who established Reprieve Australia, a group that provides legal representation to people at risk of execution, said that while Australia had become much better at pushing for an end to the death penalty, there was “a lot more work that needs to be done”.
“It’s difficult to know how effective we are, as it all happens behind closed doors,” Mr Harrington said.
“It would be a very dangerous thing for Australia in its region to stand on a soap box, so it’s a long, slow road.
“Courts and litigation are an instrument but the change needs to happen at a political level.”
Furthering Australia’s diplomatic push, Foreign Minister Marise Payne is due to formally launch the Government’s Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty in Canberra on Thursday.
The strategy — a main element of Australia’s pitch to join the UN Human Rights Council — is designed to formalise the nation’s diplomatic approach to advocacy but does not look at police cooperation or the support provided for Australians on death row.
Australia has steadily improved
Melbourne lawyer Julian McMahon represented Bali Nine duo Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, who were executed by the Indonesian Government in April 2015 after serving 10 years in jail for trafficking heroin.
He said Australia was at a “low point” in the first decade of this century, pointing to the Australian Federal Police’s communications with the Indonesian police about the Bali Nine drug smugglers, as well as a lack of opposition to the execution of Saddam Hussain and the Bali bombers.
“In the decade since 2008, Australia has definitely steadily and now very positively and strongly improved our position,” he said.
He attributed some of this change to the fight to save Chan and Sukumaran from the death penalty, with a strong sense of injustice felt by senior public servants who had worked hard to keep them alive.
Limited resources created gaps
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade did not provide information to the ABC on dedicated operational funds that were provided for DFAT’s new death penalty strategy.
In response to questions, a departmental spokeswoman instead said Australia opposed the death penalty “in all circumstances for all people”.
“Australian ministers and officials regularly raise the abolition of the death penalty as a priority human rights issue with relevant countries,” she said.
A DFAT submission to an inquiry into Australia’s work on the death penalty said that over the 18 months to September 2015 there were no representations made to the US Government on the death penalty, despite the country ranking fifth internationally for executions carried out.
Kim Beasley, Australia’s Ambassador to the US, instead wrote letters to two state governors regarding two specific cases, the submission said.
It also noted there were gaps in Australia’s bilateral advocacy against the death penalty, with restricted resources meaning advocacy was generally limited to a response to a request from Canberra or if a case attracted media attention.
Australian mother could face death penalty
In December, former Adelaide resident Lisa Cunningham, 44, and her husband Germayne, 39, were indicted in an Arizona county court each on 10 child abuse charges and a first degree murder charge over the death of Mr Cunningham’s daughter Sanaa.
Sanaa died on February 12, 2017, with an autopsy finding the cause of death to sepsis related to a chest infection, an abscess in her right foot, multiple skin ulcers and unspecified schizophrenia spectrum disorder.
In August, the Maricopa County Court ruled that both adults were eligible for the death penalty, remanding them in jail.
Court documents allege the couple shut Sanaa in their backyard, laundry and garage, forced her to sleep outside, restrained her with cable ties and failed to seek medical care.
The young child had special needs, with multiple psychiatric and behavioural issues, including a severe eating disorder.
A December statement from the Arizona Department of Child Safety confirmed that Sanaa was known to the department, with multiple reports made alleging that she was neglected since March 2016.
An investigation following the first report in March that year found the allegations were unsubstantiated, noting that the Cunninghams made specialist appointments for Sanaa over the course of the investigation.
An October 2016 allegation of possible sexual abuse was investigated and found to be unsubstantiated.
A third report was made in December that year, alleging neglect and physical abuse. After an investigation, the allegations were “proposed for substantiation”, with the case still open at the time of Sanaa’s death.
The statement from the department said there was not sufficient evidence in each of the three investigations to legally justify removal from the home or to mandate court ordered services.
Family in disbelief
Cunningham’s uncle Rob Topsfield — who lives near Mannum in South Australia’s Murraylands region — told the ABC the family did not believe the news at first.
“At first we just thought it was a joke, someone trying to be silly on Facebook, or a scam,” he said.
“We didn’t really believe it until I rang one of my great nephews and he confirmed [it].
“She was a very loving-natured girl. She’s spent most of her life helping others.
“She was like a mother to her older brothers.
“It’s been a bit rough.”
He said he and other family members felt helpless.
“I’ve got lung cancer, I’m 70,” he said.
“I don’t think there’s any way I could possibly go to America with the lungs the way they are, so we just feel so helpless.
“It’s frightening and disturbing we can’t do any more for her.
“There’s nothing we can do from this side of the earth. We don’t even get newspapers out where we live.”
A spokeswoman from DFAT told the ABC it was “providing consular assistance to an Australian in the United States, in accordance with the Consular Services Charter” and “for privacy reasons” were unable to provide further details.
September 12, 2018 04:53:20