Executions in Singapore under scrutiny as more people are hanged for drug trafficking | News on the death penalty

When Angelia Pranthaman took the stage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to unveil a new song written by her brother on death row, she told a story about ancient Greek philosopher Socrates.

Like Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, Socrates was sentenced to death, but while awaiting his punishment, the philosopher began to try to learn the flute.

“But we are going to die tomorrow, what good is that to you? another death row inmate asked.

Angelia told the audience that the story helps her better understand her brother, who is creating music even as he awaits execution for heroin trafficking.

“Pannir has a message for society and government: We can’t change the past, but we can use the time we have now,” she said at the July 29 event, then she was calling for her sentence to be commuted.

Pannir is one of dozens considered on death row in Singapore, most of whom have been convicted of drug-related offences. After a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19, the city-state government has resumed executions this year at what seems to some like a breakneck pace.

Already eight people have been hanged in 2022, while two other executions were scheduled for Friday at dawn.

“The speed of these executions this year is truly astonishing,” said Kirsten Han, a Singaporean campaigner against the death penalty, adding that it appears the government is trying to “clear up a backlog”.

Han notes that the government also appears to have broken with the longstanding tradition of only scheduling executions on Fridays, creating more stress and uncertainty for families.

“Now it’s like every time they might call you. There’s no more predictability, so it’s just constant anxiety,” she said.

The Singapore government did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment on the resumption and pace of executions.

Angelia’s brother, Pannir, is a Malaysian of Indian descent, one of many ethnic minorities on death row in Singapore, where 74% of the population is ethnic Chinese.

Singapore’s government told a 2021 UN survey that race had “no bearing” on sentencing, but declined to provide data on whether ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by the sentence. dead.

Han says it’s “fairly widely known” that minorities are “disproportionately heavily overrepresented on death row” as well as in the prison system in general. “For there to be such a large bias, there is definitely something that needs to be looked at more closely,” she said.

Mr Ravi has been one of the most prominent lawyers handling death penalty cases for years, but he has been accused of trying to prevent executions after the normal judicial process was completed. [File: Nicky Loh/Reuters]

The United Nations Human Rights Office issued a statement late last month condemning the execution of Malaysian-born Singaporean Nazeri Bin Lajim and calling for a halt to all executions when the defendants been convicted of drug trafficking.

Under international law, he noted, executions can only be used for the “most serious crimes” and drug-related crimes “demonstrably do not meet that threshold”.

The statement also pointed out that the victims of executions appear to be disproportionately “persons belonging to minorities and tend to come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.”

“This practice amounts to discriminatory treatment of minorities,” he added.

The eight people hanged so far this year are all from an ethnic minority or Malaysian nationality.

Juridical help

Lawyers handling death row cases have also come under scrutiny.

In March, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam’s lawyers were charged with “gross and flagrant abuse of legal process” for filing a last-minute appeal to spare the life of the Malaysian, who had an IQ of 69. The appeal was dismissed and the lawyers were fined.

“The system has become so hostile to the lawyers taking on these cases,” Han said. “What that means is that it has created an environment where lawyers are extremely scared and reluctant to take on late-stage cases.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice rejected this characterization.

“Lawyers are not subject to penalties for filing late applications. As in many jurisdictions, there are rules about what material must be submitted with such requests. There are also rules to prevent abuse of the legal process,” they said by email.

In the last eight death penalty cases, at least four defendants had to represent themselves after the appeal process, while one was represented by his mother.

Han says Nazeri, who needed an interpreter, didn’t even get it when the judge rejected his attempt to stay the execution.

Prominent death penalty lawyer Mr Ravi said he had already paid 40,000 Singapore dollars ($29,000) in fines and was ordered to pay a further 20,000 Singapore dollars ($14 $500) after the court said it was trying to prevent executions after the completion of normal legal process. treat.

“A disciplinary process is currently underway which could possibly see me suspended for an extended period, depriving the death row inmates of the few performances they have had in the recent past,” Ravi told Al Jazeera via email. .

Ravi says the fines have “instilled fear among lawyers”, which could jeopardize access to justice for those on death row, violate the right to a fair trial and erode trust in the justice system.

He describes the recent spike in capital punishment as an “execution frenzy” comparable to 1993, when Singapore was described as “Disneyland with the death penalty” and executions took place regularly.

“The latest round of executions will once again make Singapore the capital punishment capital of the world,” Ravi said.

On Thursday, a group of 24 death row inmates appeared via Zoom to challenge access to justice, arguing the reluctance of lawyers to take on cases infringing on their rights under the constitution. The verdict – delivered late at night after seven hours of deliberation – is unfavorable to them.

None have a lawyer.

One of them, Abdul Rahim Shapiee, was to be hanged at dawn on Friday.

Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty expert at Amnesty International, said it was ‘disappointing’ that men facing death threats had not been represented and called on Singapore to take ‘swift action’ to remedy the situation .

“No matter what we think of the death penalty, it would be unconscionable to ignore those empty chairs in court,” she said.


Activists have also pointed to the relatively small amount of drugs smuggled in capital punishment cases and whether executions even have a chilling effect on the trade.

“Most of those convicted of drug trafficking were sentenced to death after being sentenced for relatively small amounts of drugs and for their relatively limited involvement in drug trafficking,” Sangiorgio said.

Nazeri, for example, was executed for trafficking 33.39 grams of diamorphine. But given that he suffered from “long-term addiction”, the United Nations Human Rights Office said in its report last month that “most of the diamorphine would have been for personal”. What was left would therefore not have met Singapore’s 15 gram threshold for the mandatory death penalty.

On July 26, a 49-year-old Singaporean of Malay origin was executed for trafficking cannabis.

In Singapore, anyone caught with more than 500 grams (1.1 lb) of the drug faces a mandatory death sentence, but many countries around the world, including Thailand, are easing restrictions on the use of marijuana. Neighboring Malaysia is also considering allowing the use of cannabis for medical reasons and has also announced that it will abolish the mandatory death penalty for drug cases.

Sangiorgio says the use of the death penalty is “against the global trend”, even more so in drug cases. “In recent years, we have seen only four countries carrying out executions for drug offences,” she said.

Singapore amended its drug death penalty provisions in 2012 to give the court limited discretion in drug sentencing provided the offender meets certain conditions (PDF).

The government has also declared that the death penalty is necessary to deter trafficking and to ensure the security of the country; Han says there is “no clear evidence” that this is the case.

“Among health care professionals who actually work with people who use drugs, they are so clear that these policies don’t work and yet politicians keep saying they do,” she said.

Sangiogio agrees, saying UN bodies like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board have urged governments to abolish the death penalty for crimes related to to drugs.

“In fact, the United Nations Common Position on Drugs has always been to urge governments to move away from punitive responses because of their ineffectiveness in reducing drug trafficking or addressing drug use and supply. drugs,” she said.

But Han says that despite national and international calls and shifting global trends, the Singaporean government, which says there is strong public support for executions, appears to be “stepping up its efforts”.

She focuses her attention on her fellow Singaporeans at a time of unprecedented debate over capital punishment.

“It doesn’t seem like the government is interested in listening to what we have to say, so a big part of our job is to educate and organize our fellow Singaporeans,” she said. “We put our energies and our attention into each other.”

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