Singapore courts set to consider executions amid fears authorities want to clear backlog

Over 50 people on death row, campaigners say, with majority convicted of drug offences

Among the cases to be heard next week, is an appeal launched by Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, whose execution was stayed last year pending appeal. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty

Courts in Singapore will next week consider arguments by four men who have spent more than a decade on death row, amid fears the city state may push ahead with executions to free up space on death row.

The Singaporean government does not disclose how many people are held on death row, though campaigners believe there are likely more than 50 men awaiting execution, the majority of whom have been convicted of drug offences.

Singapore has not carried out any executions for the past two years, due to a number of pending court applications that forced the authorities to pause proceedings. However, sentences of the death penalty have continued to be handed down, even during the height of the pandemic when hearings were held over Zoom. Families fear there is now a backlog that the authorities are attempting to clear.

Among the cases to be heard next week, is an appeal launched by Nagaenthran K Dharmalingam, whose execution was stayed last year pending appeal. Nagaenthran, who has an intellectual disability, was convicted of trying to smuggle 43g – about three tablespoons – of heroin into Singapore. The handling of his case provoked global outrage, with UN experts, the European Union's delegation to Singapore, as well as multiple rights groups and billionaire Richard Branson, a critic of the death penalty, all expressing concern.


Since then, other inmates – Roslan bin Bakar, Pausi bin Jefridin and Rosman bin Abdullah – have been scheduled for execution. These were temporarily halted, but further hearings in their case are scheduled for next week.

Kirsten Han, a journalist and activist who has written extensively about Singapore's death penalty, said families of other inmates on death row are following the proceedings anxiously. "How these recent cases go is taken as an indication of whether their cases might be coming soon. They are all very worried," she said.

Nagaenthran's sister, Sarmila Dharmalingam, who lives in Malaysia, said she will wait anxiously for a phone call on Tuesday to hear of her brother's fate.

Sarmila said her brother’s mood is unpredictable, and that for two years during the pandemic he refused to meet relatives, they suspect due to depression. “Sometimes Nagaen will talk nicely to my brother [who is now permanently based in Singapore], and then suddenly he will switch off, [start] looking up and down. The character is different,” she said.

Sarmila last spoke to Nagaenthran three weeks ago. He asked her why she was busy campaigning and helping organise his appeal. “I am speechless that Nagaen was asking me these questions,” she said. “I ask, Why? You don’t know for what purpose I am doing this? I already informed you that I want to save your life.” It is unclear if he understands the situation.

According to Han’s research, more than 50 people are on death row, including a disproportionate number of ethnic minority inmates.

Sentences of the death penalty have continued to be handed down, even during the height of the pandemic when hearings were held over Zoom. Photograph: Mohd Rasfan/AFP via Getty

Singapore has some of the world’s toughest drug laws, which its government claims are the most effective deterrent against crime.

Campaigners argue this is not the case. "Statistics from countries that have abolished the death penalty show that the absence of the death penalty has not resulted in an increase in the crimes previously subject to capital punishment," said Chiara Sangiorgio, death penalty adviser at Amnesty International, who pointed to data from Canada.

The Singapore government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In 2012, a legal change granted Singaporean judges narrow discretion to sentence convicts to life imprisonment and possible caning if certain criteria are met. Individuals must prove they were acting only as a courier, and must obtain a certificate of substantive assistance, confirming that they had provided information that significantly helped disrupt drug trafficking activities, or prove they have a mental or intellectual disability that substantially impaired their mental responsibility.

Yet inmates who appear to meet such criteria struggle to have this accepted by the courts, including Nagaenthran, whose various psychiatric conditions were not recognised.

Pannir Selvam Pranthaman, who was found guilty of carrying 51.84g of heroin in 2017, was also refused such an allowance. His lawyer argued he had given information to the authorities which led to the arrest of another drug trafficker. However, the court said this information confirmed what the authorities had already known and so, while accurate, wasn’t useful enough to warrant a certificate.

Pannir's sister, Angelia Pranthaman, who campaigns on behalf of her brother and other death row inmates, said her brother has exhausted all forms of legal challenge. Their only option is to ask for clemency. "We have no hope in clemency," she said, adding that no pardon has been issued for decades. "I am very scared of the word because that is the last option we have."

Han said that while the public is supportive of the death penalty, it is becoming more open to discussing the issue. Recent high profile cases may, for many, be the first time they have discovered how the death penalty works, she said.

Reforms though, are likely to take time, said Han, which is little comfort to the families of those awaiting execution. “If someone is scheduled to hang next week I can’t possibly tell his family – oh, you know, change takes time and the death penalty will be abolished in 10 years, because they really don’t care about that.” – Guardian