Donald Trump reportedly praised Singapore, China and Philippines for executing drug dealers. Here’s a few possible reasons why
US President Donald Trump considers drug traffickers to be as bad as serial killers and would love to have a law that executes dealers in the US
US President Donald Trump has been privately praising Singapore, the city state once known as the world’s most active executioner per capita.
This according to Axios, which reported Sunday that the president has been telling friends for months that the death penalty should be imposed on drug dealers in the United States – similar to a policy held for decades by Singapore.
An anonymous senior administration official also told Axios that the president has also spoken admiringly about the executions of drug traffickers in China and the Philippines.
“They just kill them,” Trump reportedly said.
Citing people who have spoken with Trump, Axios reported that the president “often leaps into a passionate speech about how drug dealers are as bad as serial killers” and has said he would love to have a law that allows the United States to execute drug dealers without exception.
Axios reporter Jonathan Swan said Tuesday that the president had “talked up” executions in China, the Philippines and Singapore to not just confidants, but also to members of Congress and some foreign leaders. The White House has not responded to a request for comment.
Trump’s reported comments are consistent with his penchant for embracing no-holds-barred policies and rhetoric on drug crimes, from his Justice Department’s directive to federal prosecutors to pursue the harshest penalties possible, to his extraordinary endorsement of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, whose drug war has left thousands of suspected drug dealers dead without as much as a day in court.
But Singapore’s unyielding stance on law and order has long raised red flags among human rights groups, especially as more and more countries eliminate the death penalty.
Advocates say Singapore’s process of executing defendants is often shrouded in secrecy and misinformation and is designed to tip the scales of justice heavily toward prosecutors, who have nearly limitless power over who dies and who is spared.
The method has also met with harsh criticism.
People convicted of capital offences in Singapore are executed by hanging, which Kirsten Han, co-founder of an anti-death penalty group in Southeast Asia, described in chilling detail: “A noose – measured according to the individual’s height – is placed over the prisoner’s head, the knot behind the right ear to ensure the spinal cord is snapped upon the impact of the long drop through the trapdoor.”
Families are never present, just prison officers and doctors.
In a seemingly unusual part of the execution practice in Singapore, those condemned to die are allowed to change into regular clothes the day before they’re executed – so they can pose for a picture that will be given to loved ones as a keepsake.
Australia’s then-attorney general called the method “a most unfortunate, barbaric act” in 2005, when an Australian heroin trafficker was executed in Changi Prison. Many Australians held candlelit vigils on the eve of Nguyen Tuong Van’s execution.
Hanging was the most common method of execution in the United States in the 1800s before widespread adoption of the electric chair. Hanging remains widespread in several countries in Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
It is the lone method of execution in Singapore, where executions are on the decline: the government has executed 24 people over the past decade – 16 of whom were convicted of drug crimes.
Singapore’s mandatory death sentence would be imposed equally on a person who trafficked more than 15 grams of heroin and a person who bombed a government building and killed dozens.
To place this in context, trafficking an exponentially higher amount of heroin in the United States – 100 to 999 grams – is punishable by five to 40 years in prison.
Similarly, a person who fires a gun, or attempts to fire a gun, during a kidnapping or a robbery in Singapore also faces the death penalty – even if nobody is wounded or killed.
“Simply having the keys to a car or to a room or to a house where drugs were found” means that a person is a presumed drug trafficker and, therefore, could face the death penalty, said Chiara Sangiorgio, a death penalty expert for the Amnesty International.
Hence, there is no presumption of innocence. The burden of proof is on the accused, who are often poor people far down into the drug chain, and foreigners who might not be fluent in the native language, Sangiorgio said.
Advocates say there’s no evidence that executions are any more of a crime deterrent than lesser punishments.
In 2009, researchers from Columbia Law School compared murder rates in Singapore and Hong Kong, where capital punishment was abolished in 1993, and found little difference.
But Singaporean officials have long insisted that the spectre of death, particularly for drug traffickers, has worked for Singapore.
“Singapore is relatively drug-free, and the administration is under control. There are no drug havens, no no-go zones, no drug production centres, no needle exchange programmes,” K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s minister of home affairs and law, said in 2016.
A “soft approach,” he argued, would flood the island state with narcotics – a line of thinking that appears to be similar to Trump’s.
The number of executions every year, however, has significantly declined.
Singapore executed 76 people in 1994 and 73 in 1995, when the population was just more than 3 million.
In 2015 and 2016, there were just eight executions in total on the island – five for people convicted of drug crimes.
Changes in 2013 to Singapore’s Misuse of Drugs Act gave judges some leeway in sentencing if defendants meet two conditions: 1) they were merely couriers or drug mules and 2) they have greatly cooperated with law enforcement officers by tipping them about other drug traffickers. Alternatively, those who have proven that they’re couriers can also be spared if they’re mentally or intellectually disabled.
The revised laws have cut the number of those sentenced to death. According to a recent study by Amnesty International, 38 out of 93 people convicted of murder and drug trafficking from January 1, 2013, were spared hanging.
Shanmugam, the Singaporean minister, also said last year that the drug trade has hardly flourished since the reforms: Officials have caught 90 traffickers since 2012 through the help of drug couriers who cooperate in exchange for leniency, he said.
Eugene K.B. Tan, a professor at the Singapore Management University School of Law, called the reforms “tempering justice with mercy” in a 2016 column for The Straits Times.
“The Government has determined that the mandatory death penalty (MDP) may not be needed for all types of serious crimes. This is an important first step, notwithstanding the attraction and force of the MDP was its unequivocal demonstration of zero tolerance and resolve in maximum deterrence,” Tan wrote.
“Yet, the shift to the discretionary death penalty regime should not be misconstrued as Singapore letting up on drug trafficking and murders. Instead, this shift was necessary to retain public confidence and legitimacy in our administration of criminal justice.”
But the reforms did little to ease the concerns of human rights advocates.
Amnesty International analysed judgments issued by Singapore’s High Court and Court of Appeal of Singapore on the cases of 137 people charged with capital offences from 2008, five years before the reforms took place, to 2017, four years after.
The organisation said it found that although executions are happening far less often, major human rights violations are still in place.
Defence lawyers, for example, are never present during interrogations. In many cases, particularly in the case of foreigners, the statements that lead to conviction were either misrepresented or were lost in translation, Sangiorgio said.
Prosecutors and not the judges still have unchallenged power to decide whether defendants should be spared from the gallows based on their level of cooperation.
Prosecutors must first issue what’s called a “certificate of substantive help,” which confirms that a defendant has given them substantial information about other drug traffickers. Only then can judges decide on a lesser punishment. In many cases, however, defendants can be so far down the drug hierarchy that they don’t have any meaningful information to give, Sangiorgio said.
“In other words, people pay with their lives for failing to provide information which they are incapable of providing,” according to the study.
Singapore and the United States were among the 40 countries and territories that voted against a United Nations resolution calling for a global moratorium on executions in 2016.
Trump, according to Axios, has acknowledged that executing people for drug offences would never happen in the United States.
In trying to add some nuance to Trump’s comments, White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway, who’s in charge of the administration’s anti-drug efforts, told Axios that the president was talking about drug dealers that cause mass overdose deaths by flooding communities with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more potent than heroin or morphine.
“The president makes a distinction between those that are languishing in prison for low-level drug offences and the kingpins hauling thousands of lethal doses of fentanyl into communities, that are responsible for many casualties in a single weekend,” Conway said.