Convictions for several offences, including murder and drug trafficking, previously came with automatic death penalties, giving judges no leeway.
The bill does not scrap death sentences, but grants judges the option to instead impose lengthy prison sentences of between 30 to 40 years under certain conditions.
Speaking before the lower house of Malaysia’s parliament, Deputy Law Minister Ramkarpal Singh said: “We cannot arbitrarily ignore the existence of the inherent right to life of every individual.”
Malaysia has had a moratorium on executions since 2018, but courts have continued to send inmates to death row.
The reform will still have to clear the senate, but is widely expected to pass without major opposition.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson called yesterday’s vote an “important step forward for Malaysia”, and hopes it will add pressure for other Southeast Asian nations to follow suit.
“This is an important breakthrough that will cause some serious conversations in the halls of upcoming ASEAN meetings,” he told AFP, referring to the 10-member Southeast Asian bloc.
“Malaysia should show regional leadership by encouraging other governments in ASEAN to re-think their continued use of the death penalty, starting with Singapore which has recently gone on a post-COVID execution spree.”
Last year, the prosperous city-state hung 11 people - all for drug offences.
Myanmar’s junta has also resumed using death sentences after a decades-long pause.
Cambodia and the Philippines are the only ASEAN members to have fully abolished capital punishment.
While Malaysia’s vote stopped short of ending capital punishment, Anti-Death Penalty Asia Network executive coordinator Dobby Chew welcomed the vote as a “good way forward”.
“We have data that shows that the death penalty doesn’t change anything,” he told AFP.
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