On death row in Singapore

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Update, Nov. 5, 2015: Kho Jabing’s execution, scheduled for Friday, has been stayed pending a hearing of a last-minute criminal motion. We will update with further developments.

I was sitting in a hotel room in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, when I received the message on Monday afternoon. It was from Kho Jumai, a short but heart-breaking note, sent over WhatsApp: “My brother this Friday die.”

Jumai’s brother is a 31-year-old Malaysian man named Kho Jabing. For the past week I and other anti–death penalty activists have been in constant contact with Jumai, booking her and her mother flights to Singapore, picking them up at the airport, meeting in the evenings for updates, and thinking of ways to get her brother off death row. I was in the Malaysian capital in the hopes of lobbying local human rights groups and politicians to act for their fellow countryman—an endeavour that yielded limited success.

It has been a long and arduous seven years for Jumai and her mother. Her brother, Jabing, was arrested in 2008 when he was 24 years old for his involvement in a robbery that led to a man’s death. Jumai’s father died of a stroke a few months later, which she attributes to health problems triggered by anxiety and worry for his son. Two years later, Jabing was convicted of murder and sentenced to death under Singapore’s mandatory death penalty regime. Under the law, anyone convicted of murder must be sentenced to death, with no chance for mitigating factors to be taken into account.

But that wasn’t the end of the family’s emotional roller coaster. The Singapore government amended the mandatory death penalty law in 2013, allowing judges the discretion to choose between death and life imprisonment with caning—a vicious punishment in which the inmate is strapped down and whipped with a long rattan cane—for all but the most serious category of murder, as well as certain cases of drug trafficking. Jabing was eligible for resentencing, and a High Court judge ruled that there was “no clear evidence” he had snuck up behind his victim and hit him over the head with a piece of wood. The death sentence was set aside, replaced with a life sentence and 24 strokes of the cane.

Any relief was short-lived. The prosecution appealed the sentence, and in January the Court of Appeal—Singapore’s highest court—returned Jabing to death row in a in a 3–2 ruling. Although the two dissenting judges thought that there was insufficient evidence to determine how many times Jabing had struck his victim with the piece of wood or whether he had caused the skull fractures that led to the man’s death, the majority believed that Jabing had showed a “blatant disregard for human life” in a way that “outraged the feelings of the community” and therefore deserved to die.

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