Singapore executions under scrutiny as more hanged for drugs

Questions being asked over speed of executions, legal representation for late stage cases, and ethnicities of the condemned.

Singaporeans sit on the grass at 'Speaker's Corner', the only place protest is allowed in Singapore, to show their opposition to the death penalty.
There has been unprecedented public debate in Singapore over the use of the death penalty [File: Roslan Rahman/AFP]

When Angelia Pranthaman walked on stage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, to unveil a new song written by her brother on death row, she told a story about the 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 use will that be to you?” asked another man on death row.

Angelia told the audience the story helps her understand her brother better, who is creating music even while awaiting execution for heroin trafficking.

“Pannir has a message for us to bring back to society and the government: we can’t change the past, but we can make use of the time we have now,” she said at the event on July 29, as she appealed for his sentence to be commuted.

Pannir is one of dozens of people thought on death row in Singapore, most of whom have been convicted of drug offences. After a two-year pause due to COVID-19, the city state’s government has returned to executions this year at what seems to some like a reckless pace.

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

“The speed of these executions this year is really astonishing,” said Kirsten Han, a Singaporean who campaigns against the death penalty, adding that it seems like the government is trying to “clear a backlog”.

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

“Now it’s like any time they could be calling 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 about the resumption and rate of executions.

Angelia’s brother Pannir is an ethnically Indian Malaysian, one of many people from ethnic minorities on death row in Singapore, where 74 percent of the population is ethnically Chinese.

The Singaporean government told a UN inquiry in 2021 that race had “no bearing” on convictions, but it has refused to provide data on whether ethnic minorities are disproportionately affected by the death penalty.

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

Profile of M Ravi walking past a drug prevention advertisement during a vigil for Nigerian Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi in 2007
M Ravi has been one of the most prominent lawyers handling death penalty cases for years, but has been accused of trying to prevent executions after the completion of the normal judicial process [File: Nicky Loh/Reuters]

The UN Human Rights Office released a statement at the end of last month condemning the execution of Singaporean Nazeri Bin Lajim, an ethnic Malay, and calling for a halt to all executions where the defendants have been found guilty of drug charges.

Under international law, it noted, executions can only be used for the “most serious crimes” and drug crimes “clearly do not meet this threshold”.

The statement also pointed out that victims of the executions disproportionately seem to be “minority persons and tend to be from economically disadvantaged backgrounds”.

“The practice amounts to discriminatory treatment of minorities,” it added.

The eight people hanged so far this year have all come from an ethnic minority background or been Malaysian nationals.

Legal help

Lawyers handling death row cases have also come in for scrutiny.

In March, lawyers for Nagaenthran Dharmalingam were accused of “blatant and egregious abuse of the court processes” for filing a last-minute appeal to spare the life of the Malaysian, who had an IQ of 69. The appeal was rejected, and the lawyers were fined.

“The system has become so hostile to lawyers taking on these cases,” Han said. “What this means is that it’s created an environment in which lawyers are extremely afraid and reluctant to take on late-stage cases.”

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Law rejected this characterisation.

“Lawyers do not face penalties for making late stage applications. Like in many jurisdictions, there are rules on what material needs to be presented with such applications. There are also rules to prevent abuse of court process,” they said via 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 a language interpreter, did not even fully understand when the judge rejected his attempt to stay the execution.

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

“Disciplinary proceedings are now ongoing which may eventually see me being suspended for a long time, depriving death row inmates with the rare representations they had in the recent past,” Ravi told Al Jazeera via email.

Ravi says the fines have “instilled fear among lawyers” which could undermine access to justice for those facing capital charges, violate the right to a fair trial and erode confidence in the judicial system.

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

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

On Thursday, a group of 24 death row inmates appeared via Zoom for a challenge they had brought over access to justice, arguing lawyers’ reluctance to take on cases infringed on their rights under the constitution. The verdict — delivered late at night after seven hours of deliberation — went against them.

None has lawyers.

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

Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert at Amnesty International, says it is “heartbreaking” that men facing death were left unrepresented and called for Singapore to take “prompt action” to rectify the situation.

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

‘Doubling down’

Campaigners have also pointed to the relatively small amount of drugs being smuggled in capital punishment cases, and whether executions even work as a deterrent to the trade.

“Most of those convicted of drug trafficking have been sentenced to death after they were convicted in relation to relatively low amounts of drugs and for having a relatively limited involvement in the drug trafficking trade,” said Sangiorgio.

Nazeri, for example, was executed for trafficking 33.39 grams of diamorphine. But given he suffered from “long-term addiction”, the UN Human Rights Office said in its report last month that “most of the diamorphine would have been for personal use”. 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 ethnicity was executed for trafficking cannabis.

In Singapore, anyone caught with more than 500 grams (1.1lb) of the drug faces a mandatory death sentence, but many countries around the world, including Thailand, are loosening restrictions on the use of marijuana. Neighbouring 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 using the death penalty at all is “against the global trend”, even more so in drug cases. “In recent years we have seen only four countries carry out executions for drug-related offences,” she said.

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

The government has also said the death penalty is necessary as a deterrent to trafficking and to keep the country safe; Han says there is “no clear evidence” that is the case.

“Among medical professionals who are actually working with people who have drug dependence, they are so clear that these policies don’t work and yet politicians are still saying that it does,” she said.

Sangiorgio agrees, saying UN bodies like the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the International Narcotics Control Board have urged governments to abolish the death penalty in relation to drug crimes.

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

But Han says despite domestic and international appeals and shifting global trends, the Singaporean government, which argues there is strong public backing for executions, seems to be “doubling down very hard”.

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

“It doesn’t feel like the government is interested in listening to what we have to say, so a lot of our work is about educating and organising fellow Singaporeans,” she said. “We are putting our energies and attention into each other.”

Source: Al Jazeera