The recent brutal murder of a 26-year-old schoolteacher in her Saraburi apartment has understandably fuelled a tremendous outpouring of anger among the public. Police say the suspect they have in custody, a neighbour of the victim, has confessed to breaking into her room while she slept with the intention of raping her, but then stabbed her to death when she resisted.
Amid the ensuing outrage on the social media and elsewhere, debate has been revived over the wisdom or harm in making capital punishment mandatory for convicted rapists.
Calls for the death penalty always emerge in the wake of shocking high-profile sex crimes, and politicians can usually be counted on to echo the prevailing public sentiment. In this case, however, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has dared to draw the ire of perturbed citizens by opposing additional use of capital punishment. He noted, quite correctly, that more and more countries are in fact abandoning the death penalty, a trend that’s continued for decades.
In Thailand, rapists who kill their victims can already be sentenced to death, and some are, although the sentence is sometimes commuted to life imprisonment if they confess, thus showing remorse and aiding the state by abbreviating the legal process.
Quite apart from shifts in world sentiment, making the death penalty compulsory for every rape conviction brings with it a grave risk. As Justice Ministry Deputy Permanent Secretary Tawatchai Thaikyo has pointed out, making every rape punishable by death is tantamount to encouraging rapists to kill their victims so there is no witness to the crime. They would have nothing additional to lose by taking the victim’s life.
The other major global trend in criminal punishment is “chemical castration”, hailed as a relatively humane and more appropriate penalty. In countries including the United States, Great Britain, Australia, Russia, South Korea and Germany, convicted rapists – and particularly repeat offenders and those who sexually assault children – are being administered drugs that reduce their libido and hence curtail sexual activity. Proponents describe chemical castration as a form of “therapy” for recidivist rapists, since it prevents them from committing the same crime again.
Questions linger over this method regarding rights and medical ethics, but convicted paedophiles and other sex offenders at least receive more lenient prison sentences in return. And its proponents claim it’s been effective in reducing sexual violence in the countries that have adopted the practice. Indonesia has just become the latest nation to begin chemically castrating child-sex offenders following the brutal gang rape and murder of a 14-year-old schoolgirl in April. The following month President Joko Widodo issued a decree authorising the treatment and imposing tougher penalties on repeat offenders.
To those who insists that chemical castration is a violation of human rights, and that a biomedical procedure should not become a punishment for crime, we can only repeat the fundamental truth that the rights of convicted criminals do not supersede those of their victims or the victims’ families. Violent sex crimes disturb society’s sense of peace, security and order. The criminals must be held responsible for their acts through due justice, even if their individual rights are overridden in the process.
It is perhaps also time for Thailand to adopt another practice that’s become common around the world – public disclosure of the identity of repeat sex offenders, particularly those who prey on children. This too has been shown to serve as a deterrent to repeat offences. It might further include alerting residents that a convicted offender lives in their neighbourhood so that they can be on guard.
The usual last word in this debate is maudlin, selfish, and also true: If there are no deterrents discouraging potential rapists, their next victim might well be a personal loved one.