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Death penalty: hard line will hinder policing

By Dr John Coyne

Imagine if our federal police had information relating to a child being raped in another country, but were prevented from sharing this with their foreign police colleagues because the offender could be sentenced to death if he's arrested. This is exactly what could happen if the government implements recommendations from a recently released inquiry report.

If our police are forbidden from sharing information with foreign partners in death penalty cases, there's a grave danger that our regional law enforcement efforts will be undermined.

But this will be the outcome if the government accepts the recommendations of the human rights sub-committee of the joint standing committee on foreign affairs, defence and trade. It's recently handed down its findings into Australia's advocacy for the abolition of the death penalty.

In the wake of the executions of the Bali Nine ringleaders Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, it's understandable that the committee concentrated on drugs: most international police co-operation involves drug-related offences.

But most of our Asian neighbours apply the death penalty more broadly than drugs. Offences related to terrorism, murder, rape, child exploitation, foreign bribery and corruption all potentially attract the death penalty.

In the early stages of a police investigation, the full details of what's occurred aren't always established.

Neither investigators nor prosecutors are able to make an informed assessment of the severity of the offences, and by default, what penalties should be sought.

The committee's suggestion that the federal police should be precluded from sharing information that may lead to the imposition of the death penalty is unworkable.

If you can't share information in terrorism and child exploitation offences in a timely manner then innocent lives will be at risk.

It's naive to argue that our officials could issue an ultimatum to foreign police that "we're not going to assist you unless you give these assurances".

From China, to Thailand, from Malaysia to Indonesia our federal police regularly work with foreign police partners whose courts apply the death penalty.

Our police negotiate passionately, and convincingly, behind the scenes for assurances regarding the application of the death penalty.

Our police ensure that their regional law enforcement partners don't have their sovereignty unnecessarily challenged.

That way our neighbours save face, and often take the death penalty off the table. But at times our police just don't share.

It's taken the federal police a long time to establish strong police-to-police relationships, based on trust and co-operation. Blunt ultimatums will see years of goodwill dissipate.

Any success we've had in combating serious and organised crime in Asia can be directly attributed to international police engagement: information sharing, capacity development and joint investigations.

It would be great to have a guarantee that Australian police information could never be used in a case where the death penalty was a possibility.

But such a guarantee isn't possible if we're to work collaboratively with our international law enforcement partners.

We shouldn't be leaving it to our politicians to decide if and when we share information with foreign police where the death penalty may be at play.

That will serve only to slow the justice process down and politicise the outcome.

Current federal police guidelines, with a commitment to continuous review, should continue to direct our approach to regional law enforcement co-operation.

Dr John Coyne is the head of the Australian Strategic Police Institute's Border Security Program. He was previously in charge of the Australian Federal Police's strategic intelligence capability.

Originally published: Australian Financial Review, 10 May 2016 

Originally published by: Australian Financial Review on 11 May 2016