SINGAPORE—This city-state has executed eight people for drug trafficking since March, including two men who were hanged on Tuesday, sparking criticism from international human rights groups for what the country’s authorities call a zero-tolerance approach to drug crimes.
Trafficking drugs in excess of certain amounts carries a mandatory death penalty in Singapore, although in some cases judges can impose life imprisonment. For heroin, that amount is about half an ounce. For cannabis, it’s just over 1 kilo. Singaporean authorities say the tough penalties deter drug crimes and have helped prevent major drug syndicates from setting up in the country.
The United Nations human rights office says using the death penalty to punish drug offenses violates international human rights law. It supports the universal abolition of the death penalty and urges states that still use the practice to limit its application to serious crimes involving intentional killing. Drug offenses do not meet the threshold of these more serious crimes, he says.
Criticism of the government is rare in Singapore, which has strict controls on speech and assembly. The ruling People’s Action Party, which has won every election since the nation’s independence in 1965, is popular and credited by many citizens with keeping the country prosperous and stable. But the pace of recent executions has fueled a nascent domestic debate about the death penalty. No executions were carried out in the previous two years as some cases involving the death penalty passed through the legal system, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said.
“Young Singaporeans tend to have a more liberal attitude towards drug use, it doesn’t cause the same level of moral panic as it does in older generations,” said Kirsten Han, a Singaporean journalist and campaigner at the non-profit anti-death penalty. Collective Transformative Justice. “We’ve also seen a lot more willingness to question the death penalty and how it relates to other social justice issues like inequality, race and poverty.”
Of the eight men executed in Singapore this year, the Transformative Justice Collective says three were Malaysian nationals and the rest were Malaysian Singaporeans, a minority group representing 13.5% of Singapore’s predominantly Chinese population. The government did not release the names or identities of the two men who were hanged on Tuesday, citing a request by the men’s families for privacy.
At least one more inmate has been given an execution notice and is set to be hanged this week, anti-death penalty activists say.
According to the advocacy group Harm Reduction International, 35 countries still allow the death penalty for drug offenses as of 2021. Singapore was one of eight designated as “high implementation states”—those that had carried out sentences recently or frequently. China, North Korea and Iran were also on the list. The US was designated a “token implementation state”, meaning the death penalty could be used for drug offences, but had not been for at least five years. The European Union has abolished the death penalty in all cases, including serious crimes.
“Drug trafficking causes very serious harm, not only to individual users, but also to families and the wider society,” Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs said in response to questions from the Wall Street Journal. He also pointed to major recent drug busts in the region, saying that as a transport hub, Singapore would be “flooded with drugs” if not for his tough approach. The UN drug agency said more than a billion methamphetamine tablets were seized in East and Southeast Asia last year.
“The death penalty is issued and carried out only after a strict legal process with strict judicial safeguards,” said Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs.
One recent case in particular in the city-state has sparked unprecedented outrage. On April 27, Nagaenthran Dharmalingam was hanged after more than a decade on death row. Mr Nagaenthran, who was 34 at the time of his death, was a Malaysian national convicted in 2010 of entering Singapore with about 1.5 ounces of heroin strapped to his thigh. He appealed the verdict several times on various grounds, including that his IQ of 69 made him mentally handicapped.
His appeals were unsuccessful. Singapore’s high court ruled that he did not suffer from an intellectual disability.
Mr Nagaenthran’s case shocked some Singaporeans and many people overseas. An online petition asking for his pardon was signed by more than 106,000 people. Local activists raised more than $14,700 to support his family. The Malaysian government asked for clemency.
Questions about his mental abilities and his family’s poor social standing have drawn sympathy, as have accusations that Singapore’s tough laws may lead criminals to prey on the disadvantaged, using them as drug mules.
“If we execute a drug mule today, the drug lord just finds another victim and continues the drug trafficking chain – What are we really achieving?” said Dheepthi Krishnan, a 20-year-old law student in Singapore. “No one is saying they should be released, but at least give them the option of life imprisonment. Who are we to take their lives?’
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