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Simon Chesterman for The Straits Times

Tinkering with the machinery of death

The death penalty is being reassessed in the three industrialised countries that continue to impose it, including Singapore.

Published on May 24, 2014 8:04 AM

In centuries past, the death penalty was a spectacle for the masses.

Four hundred years ago, those involved in the Gunpowder Plot - still merrily celebrated as Guy Fawkes Night - failed in their attempt to assassinate King James I and blow up Parliament. The culprits were dragged through London's streets to St Paul's churchyard where they were publicly hanged, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes himself managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck. He was lucky. His co-conspirators remained conscious through much of the ordeal, which included disembowelment and castration, their genitalia burned before the watching crowd.

Today's executions are meant to be more civilised, either carried out with clinical formality as in the United States, or in relative secrecy as in Japan and Singapore.

For the US, such clinical formality has become more difficult. The lethal injection method that is most common there relies on drugs that European manufacturers will no longer produce. It is also a process that many doctors will no longer supervise.

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