The city-state is a strong supporter of the death penalty. But for how much longer?
The city-state strongly supports the use of death penalty. Death sentences are regularly handed down for drug related-offences, as witnessed in neighbouring countries. The use of death penalty is seen as a sovereignty issue by Singapore, even if increasingly challenged by the international community. In which direction the country is heading regarding these issues?
Giada Girelli is a human rights analyst at Harm Reduction International. She monitors trends on violations of fundamental rights committed in the name of drug control. Prison Insider asked her three questions.
Most of those facing execution for drug-related offences come from a low socio-economic and educational background
Prison Insider. How does the country use the death penalty?¶
Giada Girelli. Singapore is among the most vocal supporters of capital punishment. The death penalty is currently mostly imposed for murder or drug-related offences, which goes from production, trafficking, to possession with intent of trafficking as little as 15 grams of heroin. The death penalty was mandatory for drug offences and murder until 2013, when Singapore amended its Misuse of Drugs Act.
Singapore is one of the few countries that regularly execute people for drug- related offences, with 30 recorded executions between 2011 and 2019 (out of a total of 39). No executions occurred in 2020, for the first time since 2014, even though two executions were halted at the last minute. Although no official figures are available, we know that courts regularly sentence people to death for drug trafficking; at least 61 people were sentenced to death in the past seven years, and there are around 27 people awaiting execution for these non-violent crimes (these are roughly half of all people sentenced to death).
The death penalty is mostly imposed against men ─although some women have also been sentenced to death in the past─. Malaysian citizens are overrepresented on death row. Most of those facing execution for drug-related offences come from a low socio-economic and educational background. They were charged with transporting or trafficking relatively low amounts of substances ─virtually none of them can be qualified as ‘drug kingpins’ or in positions of power within the drug market. Several of them were reportedly tricked or coerced into trafficking substances.
A review of publicly available judgments reveals that fair trial standards in the island country are not always in line with international standards.
Many practices at different stages of the procedures are problematic: the assistance from a lawyer can be refused, death penalty can be a mandatory sentence, the presumption of innocence is often violated. But there are others problems.
The case of Nagaenthran K., which recently attracted widespread criticism, further demonstrates Singapore’s failure to comply with its international obligations.
Nagaenthran K., a 32 years’ old Malaysian citizen, was arrested in 2009 and sentenced to death in 2011 for importing with intent of trafficking 42.72 grams of diamorphine. His execution was scheduled for 10 November 2021. He, like many, was from a fragile socio-economic background, and was found to have an intellectual disability: mild ADHD, low I.Q., and impaired functioning skills. Nevertheless, judges concluded that his impairment was not sufficient to grant re-sentencing. His sentence was upheld in 2017. Despite calls by the UN, local and international organisations, and even the Prime Minister of Malaysia, to grant Nagaenthran’s clemency, Singapore strongly defends the judgment and the decision to execute him. As of the time of writing, Nagaenthran has tested positive for COVID-19 and his execution has been stayed while he recovers; paradoxically, courts are waiting for his health to improve, in order to put him to death.
Prison authorities supervise prisoners closely, and filter letters and communication with the outside world
PI. What are the detention conditions of people sentenced to death?¶
GG. Not much is known about the detention conditions of people sentenced to death in Singapore. Research by Amnesty International published in 2004 revealed that individuals are kept in strict isolation in small cells, furnished only with a toilet, a mat for sleeping and a bucket for washing. It is unclear whether and for how long prisoners are allowed to leave their cells. In the few days preceding the execution, individuals are reportedly allowed to watch television or listen to the radio and are given meals of their choice. Visitation hours are extended, and photos in civilian clothes are sometimes taken before the execution. They are also allowed extra visits from relatives, but no physical contact is permitted at any time before the execution. Prison authorities supervise prisoners closely, and filter letters and communication with the outside world.
Nagaenthran’s case shows how detrimental living conditions of people sentenced to death can be, particularly for those with mental health issues. Testimony from his brother, who visited him in prison in early November, indicated that his mental health had rapidly and dramatically deteriorated, insomuch that he is now “hallucinating, incoherent, and imagining his prison cell as a garden in which he is safe.”
Authorities also give very little notice of execution to prisoners sentenced to death and their families (about five days to a week’s notice), causing significant stress and undermining efforts to appeal the decision.
Recent reforms have somehow limited the number of cases to which capital punishment can be imposed
GG. This is a very hard question to answer! Looking at the government’s track record on the death penalty, the answer is likely not. As above-mentioned, Singapore is extremely committed to defending the imposition of capital punishment both in international fora (such as the Human Rights Council and the UN General Assembly) and in the media.
In the eyes of the government, the death penalty in the country is imposed in compliance with all its international obligations, and whether to retain the death penalty or not is ultimately an issue of national sovereignty, and thus discretion.
At the same time, it is worth noting that recent reforms have somehow limited the number of cases to which capital punishment can be imposed; although, notably, the only alternative to death ─in those cases─ remains life imprisonment, which is also highly problematic. Courts also adopted some progressive judgments recently, which may further restrict the imposition of this extreme sentence. Meanwhile, as of 23rd November, no executions have been carried out in Singapore in 2021; COVID-19 surely had an impact, but unless things change, this would be the second year in a row without executions. This may signal increasing preoccupation by the government with the negative repercussions that executions have on the country’s reputation at the international level.
A notable trend in recent years is an increase in international concern for the imposition of the death penalty in Singapore ─and increased condemnation by the UN, abolitionist countries, local and international civil society, and media outlets. In light of this, the death penalty may become politically too ‘costly’ for the government.
Singapore’s claim that public opinion strongly favours the death penalty is also crumbling, as demonstrated by recent developments: an online petition calling on the government to halt the execution of Syed Suhail in 2020 garnered over 30,000 signatures ─an unprecedented result.
A petition to spare Nagaenthran’s life has now over 90,000 signatories; a result that would have been unthinkable up to few years ago. Local civil society, activists (such as the Transformative Justice Collective) and lawyers are also increasingly vocal and effective in highlighting the many shortcomings of this practice, its abusive nature, and its ultimate ineffectiveness.
In short, the government remains resolute in defending the death penalty, but evidence and advocacy are mounting against its imposition, and the unique challenges posed by COVID-19 make this a valuable moment to re-evaluate retention of this punishment.