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Singapore: Executions Resume – More May Follow

Death Penalty
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Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, a Malaysian, was convicted and sentenced to the mandatory death penalty on 22 November 2010 for importing into Singapore 42.72 grams of diamorphine (heroin) in April 2009. His conviction and death sentence were upheld by the Court of Appeal in July 2011. Singapore authorities set his execution in November 2021. Amid international outcry, his last-minute appeal hearing was postponed several times. On 29 March, he lost his appeal, and his execution could be scheduled imminently. 

Medical experts who assessed Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam in 2013, 2016 and 2017 found that he has borderline functioning intelligence and concurrent cognitive deficits, which “may have contributed toward his misdirected loyalty and poor assessment of the risks in agreeing to carry out the offence”. In the ruling of his final appeal on 29 March 2022, the court rejected arguments about the decline of his mental state, and they have similarly dismissed challenges based on his intellectual ability. The treaty bodies for the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), to which Singapore is a party, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights have clarified that these treaties prohibit the imposition of the death penalty on people whose mental and intellectual disabilities have impeded their effective defence. 

Abdul Kahar bin Othman was convicted of drug trafficking and sentenced to the mandatory death penalty in 2015. His family were provided notice and asked to make arrangements for last visits in a letter dated 23 March, prior to his execution on 30 March. 

International law and standards prohibit the imposition of mandatory death sentences as these deny judges the possibility of taking into account the mitigating circumstances in the case. Moreover, international law and standards require that the imposition of the death penalty be restricted to the “most serious crimes” involving intentional killing. Of additional concern remains the possible reliance by the prosecution on legal presumptions under Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act, meaning that any person who is proved to have in their possession certain amounts of prohibited substances can be presumed to have knowledge of the substance contained in the package and its quantity, and to have had that drug in their possession for the purpose of trafficking, unless they can prove differently, in contravention of the right to the presumption of innocence.

Following amendments to the Misuse of Drugs Act effective from 2013, judges in Singapore have some sentencing discretion in cases where the role of the defendant was limited to transporting drugs (“courier”) provided that the public prosecutor issue a certificate of substantive assistance with the authorities, or defendants are found to have mental or intellectual disabilities that substantially impaired their mental responsibility for their acts and omissions in relation to the offence. Alarmingly, if the prosecution does not provide a certificate of assistance after a defendant is found to be a “courier”, the court is deprived of any discretionary powers and must sentence the accused to death, shifting the sentencing decision in practice to the prosecution. 

The last execution before March 2022 was carried out in November 2019, prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. The authorities set further executions in 2020 and 2021, but these were eventually stayed because of pending appeals. Amnesty International fears that Abdul Kahar bin Othman’s execution is the first in a new wave of hangings. The High Court dismissed the applications in respect of Roslan bin Bakar, Rosman bin Abdullah and another man on 9 and 16 March – all convicted of drug-related offences. Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception. As of today, 108 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes and more than two-thirds are abolitionist in law or practice.

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