Drug mules no longer bound to die

City state's scrapping of mandatory death sentence for minor drug offences welcomed in some quarters; others want wider change

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2012, 1:24am

Human rights activists are applauding Singapore's decision this week to abolish the mandatory death sentence for low-level drug couriers, giving fresh hope to dozens of inmates awaiting execution.

Singapore's amendments to its drug law will help authorities dismantle narcotics networks from the top as they ease penalties on runners who provide information on these syndicates, a lawmaker said yesterday.

However, the nation will uphold the death penalty for those who manufacture and traffic drugs, according to the Ministry of Home Affairs.

In a statement issued late on Wednesday, the Attorney General's Chambers (AGC) said parliament had formally approved amendments enabling judges to commute death sentences under certain conditions.

Courts will have the discretion to sentence the offender to death or to life imprisonment with caning if the accused is only a courier and "substantively" co-operated with authorities or has a mental disability, the ministry said on its website.The concession also applies to some murder cases.

The changes "give enforcement agencies a lot more enforcement muscle to enable them to try to go up the drug supply chain", said Eugene Tan, a Singapore Management University assistant law professor and a non-elected lawmaker who has limited voting rights. "I think this is one attempt to move upstream to deal with the drug lords."

Human rights groups have called for the abolition of capital punishment in Singapore - carried out by hanging since British colonial rule - but the government says death sentences for the most serious cases must remain as a deterrent.

"We're glad that they've done this. It breaks the lockstep mentality of the government of Singapore to favour the mandatory death penalty," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

"But this is just the first step in a long journey and there needs to be a lot more done before Singapore can say that it is a rights-respecting government."

Subhas Anandan, one of Singapore's top criminal lawyers, also welcomed the amendments.

"We are not against the death sentence per se, but we were against the mandatory death sentence. We think that in certain cases, the judges should be given the discretion of death or life imprisonment," he said.

Relatives of death-row inmates drew fresh hope from the changes. The family of Yong Vui Kong, a Malaysian convicted in 2008 at the age of 19 for trafficking heroin, was hopeful the reforms would save him from the gallows. "I'm very optimistic. He's just a drug courier who has been used," said his brother Yong Yun Leong.

The AGC, which oversees all criminal prosecutions, said it would meet the lawyers of 34 people facing execution for murder and drugs offences, who can now apply to be re-sentenced.

Defence lawyers will also be invited to find out if their clients would like to help the Central Narcotics Bureau or undergo psychiatric tests in support of such applications.

Robertson of Human Rights Watch noted that despite the amendments, the convict's fate would still depend on the public prosecutor's certification that he had co-operated substantively.

"So it's not like they're handing these cases over to the judges without some strings attached," he said. "And it's not clear at all what constitutes substantive cooperation."

The government said it had no intention of abolishing the death penalty altogether.

"The mandatory death penalty is an important part of our comprehensive anti-drug regime," Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said in Parliament this week. "We want to give our drug enforcement officers the tools they need to do their jobs; to keep us safe."

Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse