The Singapore courts will next week consider the arguments of four men who have spent more than a decade on death row, amid fears the city-state will continue executions to free up space on death row.
The Singaporean government does not disclose the number of people held on death row, although campaigners believe there are likely more than 50 men awaiting execution, the majority of whom have been convicted of related offenses to drugs.
Singapore has not carried out any executions in the past two years, due to a number of pending court cases which forced the authorities to suspend proceedings. However, death penalty sentences continued to be handed down even at the height of the pandemic when hearings were held on Zoom. Families fear there is now a backlog that authorities are trying to clear.
Among the cases to be heard next week is an appeal by Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, whose execution was stayed last year pending the appeal. Nagaenthran, who has an intellectual disability, was found guilty of attempting to smuggle 43 grams – about three tablespoons – of heroin into Singapore. The handling of his case sparked global outrage, with UN experts, the European Union Delegation in Singapore, as well as several rights groups and billionaire Richard Branson, a critic of the sentence. death, all expressing concern.
Since then, other detainees – Roslan bin Bakar, Pausi bin Jefridin and Rosman bin Abdullah – have been scheduled for execution. These have been temporarily halted, but further hearings in their case are scheduled for next week.
Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist who has written extensively on the death penalty in Singapore, said the families of other death row inmates were watching the proceedings with anxiety. “The way these recent cases are unfolding is seen as an indication of the possibility of their cases coming soon. They are all very worried,” she said.
Nagaenthran’s sister, Sarmila Dharmalingam, who lives in Malaysia, said she would look forward to a phone call on Tuesday to find out her brother’s fate.
Sarmila said his brother’s mood was unpredictable and for two years during the pandemic he refused to meet relatives, whom they suspected due to depression. “Sometimes Nagaen speaks kindly to my brother [who is now permanently based in Singapore]and then suddenly it will turn off, [start] looking up and down. The character is different,” she said.
Sarmila last spoke to Nagaenthran three weeks ago. He asked her why she was busy campaigning and helping organize his appeal. “I am speechless that Nagaen was asking me these questions,” she said. “I ask, ‘Why? You don’t know why I’m doing this? I already told you that I wanted to save your life. We don’t know if he understands the situation.
The toughest drug laws in the world
According to Han’s research, more than 50 people are on death row, including a disproportionate number of ethnic minority inmates.
Singapore has some of the strictest drug laws in the world, which its government says are the most effective deterrent against crime.
Activists argue that is not the case. “Statistics from countries that have abolished the death penalty show that the absence of the death penalty has not led to an increase in crimes previously punishable by capital punishment,” said Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty adviser. to Amnesty International, which pointed to the data from Canada.
The Singapore government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 2012, a legal change gave Singaporean judges narrow discretion to sentence convicts to life imprisonment and possible caning if certain criteria are met. Individuals must prove that they acted only as couriers and must obtain a Certificate of Substantial Assistance, confirming that they provided information that significantly contributed to the disruption of drug trafficking activities, or prove that they have a mental or intellectual disability which has significantly impaired their mental responsibility.
Yet inmates who appear to meet such criteria are struggling to get it accepted by the courts, including Nagaenthran, whose various psychiatric conditions have gone unrecognized.
Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, who was found guilty of transporting 51.84g of heroin in 2017, was also denied such an allowance. His lawyer argued that he gave authorities information that led to the arrest of another drug dealer. However, the court said this information confirmed what authorities already knew and therefore, while accurate, was not helpful enough to warrant a certificate.
Pannir’s sister, Angelia Pranthaman, who campaigns on behalf of her brother and other death row inmates, said her brother had exhausted all forms of legal challenge. Their only option is to ask for clemency. “We have no hope of clemency,” she said, adding that no pardons had been granted in decades. “I’m very afraid of the word because it’s the last option we have.”
Han said that although the public supports the death penalty, they are increasingly open to discussing the issue. The high-profile recent cases could, for many, be their first time learning about how the death penalty works, she said.
However, the reforms will likely take time, Han said, which is little comfort to the families of those awaiting execution. “If someone is going to be hanged next week, I can’t tell their family – oh, you know, change takes time and the death penalty will be abolished in 10 years, because they don’t care. really don’t care.”