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As Singapore Hangs More Drug Offenders, Some Worry Cases Aren’t Always Clear-Cut

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Singapore hanged another man on Thursday, in a somber reminder of the city-state’s controversial zero-tolerance stance on drugs

The 39-year-old, who had previously worked as a delivery driver, was given the mandatory death penalty in 2019 after he was convicted of trafficking 50 grams of heroin. He and advocates on his behalf maintained during his trial and after that he had thought he was helping to deliver contraband cigarettes for a friend, but the court didn’t believe him. 

The execution, the country’s third in just over a week, has been slammed by lawyers and anti-death penalty activists as the latest example of someone being sent to the gallows over a less than clear-cut conviction.

Despite mounting international pressure to halt the practice, Singapore’s authorities have continued to defend the use of the death penalty for drug offenses, citing it as an important deterrent for traffickers. But when it comes to death row cases, critics have questioned the fairness of what they believe to be unevenly applied discretion on charges and sentencing exceptions, as well as legally inscribed presumptions—like the one regarding the delivery driver’s knowledge of the contents of what he was transporting—that put the onus on the accused to prove their innocence.

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The Singaporean government has made moves to address concerns before. In 2012, legislative changes allowed for death sentences to be commuted to life imprisonment at the court’s discretion under specific circumstances: if the accused were merely drug couriers and had either suffered from mental conditions that diminished their responsibility or provided significant assistance to authorities to disrupt trafficking activities.

When these changes first took effect, there was optimism that the death penalty would be able to better target kingpins and spare low-level couriers, who activists had decried were often people from marginalized communities.

“A vast majority of those who are caught here are pure mules who do it either out of stupidity or desperation,” a lawyer told local media in 2015, after his client’s death sentence was commuted under the legal amendments. “They will spill the beans, and based on that … I expect very few drug traffickers will face the death penalty.” 

But a decade on and dozens of drug-related hangings later, lawyers and activists say that many of those executed continue to be the same type of low-level offenders that the amendments were designed to keep off death row.

“A lot of the questions I asked myself were: Is the system really working? Are you catching the kingpins?,” Luo Ling Ling, a pro bono lawyer who has spent the last 10 years defending death row inmates, tells TIME. “Because I’m still acting for those people at the bottom of the food chain and they’re getting convicted and sentenced to death.”

Questions about discretions

Under the 2012 amendments to drug trafficking penalties, drug couriers could have their death sentences commuted if the court determined that they were suffering from an “abnormality of mind” at the time of offense. Last year, a man’s death sentence was overturned after the court found that his depression and drug addiction significantly affected his decision to traffic heroin.

But the “abnormality of mind” argument didn’t apply for Nagaenthran Dharmalingam, who found himself at the center of Singapore’s anti-death penalty movement and international attention last year. According to the court, despite being diagnosed with “borderline intellectual functioning,” Nagaenthran’s condition was not sufficient to “impair [his] mental capacity to understand events, judge the rightness or wrongness of one’s actions, or exercise self-control.”

Read More: Singapore Executed Another Drug Offender: Why the Country Clings to the Death Penalty—and Why Advocates Say It’s Wrong

“The Singapore courts define ‘abnormality of mind’ very narrowly, and the law as it stands in Singapore is really dated given the progress that has been made around the world in terms of understanding and respecting the rights of people with psychosocial disabilities,” Kirsten Han, a member of local anti-death penalty group Transformative Justice Collective, tells TIME.

The objectivity of psychiatric diagnoses in general has long been a subject of debate in the medical field, and some professionals and academics have questioned the ethics of using the subjective opinion of psychiatrists to determine moral culpability in court. “Among the various other fields, psychiatry is one of those matters where there’s some more gray areas,” Suang Wijaya, another lawyer who represents death row inmates pro bono, tells TIME.

“This is not unique to criminal matters,” says Wijaya. “In all other matters which involve a clash of expert opinion, … what happens is the court will just listen to the experts battle it out in terms of their logic and reasoning, and the court agrees with the one that [it] finds more cogent.”

Drug couriers can also escape death row by providing help to narcotics authorities and receiving a Certificate of Substantive Assistance issued by prosecutors. However, Han, the activist, says that the process of issuing the certificate is “not transparent and gives wide discretion to the prosecution.”

When two men, Abdul Haleem Abdul Karim and Muhammad Ridzuan Md Ali, were arrested in the same case of drug trafficking in 2013, the former got life imprisonment with the Certificate of Substantive Assistance while the latter, who was not able to obtain the certificate, received the death sentence. The prosecution did not state why Ridzuan was not issued the certificate, and his lawyers argued that the two men had given “practically the same information” to narcotics authorities.

“If you are sparing my life and not sparing his life, I’d rather go down with him,” Haleem had said in court at the time. The judge replied: “You have certification from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, he does not.” Ridzuan was hanged in 2017.

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Even before cases are brought to the court, prosecutors may exercise their discretionary power in deciding what to charge defendants with, says Wijaya. Prosecutors have the leeway to charge defendants with less than the capital amount even if the volume of drugs they were caught with would have triggered the mandatory death penalty.

Wijaya represented Tangaraju Suppiah, who was executed in April for trafficking drugs that activists noted he never touched, based in part on phone numbers linked to him as well as the testimony of a man caught in the delivery. The man who was caught with one kilogram of cannabis pled guilty to a charge of trafficking 499.99 grams of cannabis—below the capital threshold of 500 grams. Tangaraju, however, maintained his innocence and was charged with and convicted of conspiring to traffic one kilogram.

Potentially perilous presumptions

The executions that have resumed post-COVID and have mostly involved those at the lowest rungs of the drug trade continue to spark concerns from observers both at home and abroad.

“Singapore has the mistaken idea that imposing the most grave, draconian, and right abusing penalties for drugs on small time dealers and mules will somehow cause drug abuse to evaporate overnight,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, tells TIME.

“That analysis is based on spreading a fear of dire consequences which doesn’t take into account the other factors, like drug addiction and the associated social and economic desperation, that drive people’s motivations.”

In many cases, a significant burden of proof lies with the accused to prove their innocence—because of a controversial set of presumptions written into the country’s drug laws.

In Singapore, anyone found to possess above specified amounts of drugs—including two grams of heroin, three grams of cocaine, or 15 grams of cannabis—are presumed to be trafficking the drugs; anyone who even has the keys to premises containing drugs may be presumed to possess the drugs; and anyone found or presumed to possess drugs are also presumed to know that they possessed drugs.

“I don’t think it’s fair. It goes against the very principle of presumption of innocence,” Luo, the lawyer, tells TIME. While Luo says she supports the death penalty in Singapore for its broader deterrent effect—the same argument championed by authorities to defend the country’s stringent drug laws—she also says there are fundamental risks to having these presumptions in place when it comes to sentencing drug traffickers.

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“If they do change the law to take away these presumptions, it will result in a lot of failed convictions,” says Luo. “In my view, it’s probably better that some guilty accused persons are not convicted, as opposed to one innocent person suffering the death penalty.”

Defending the fairness of these presumptions during a parliamentary debate, a minister said in March: “The courts are careful to ensure that the burden on the accused is not so onerous that it becomes virtually impossible to discharge.”

Faith in the honest intentions and efforts of Singapore’s judicial process was echoed by the lawyers Luo and Wijaya, with the latter telling TIME that the courts“take this task extremely seriously” and “really go into the nitty gritty.” 

But Wijaya noted that the risk of miscarriage of justice, which he says is a “feature of really all systems,” remains. “You can minimize it, and I would say in the Singapore context it’s minimized to an extremely low level,” he says, “but it can’t be zero.”

One man almost found himself facing the deadly consequences of an erroneous presumption. Raj Kumar Aiyachami had been arrested in 2015 after being caught with a bag of weed he claimed was delivered to him by mistake. He told the court he had ordered chemically sprayed tobacco, which had not been listed as a narcotic, but the trial judge didn’t believe him, and he was sent to death row in 2020.

Raj was saved by what can only be described as an uncanny coincidence: while in prison, he met the man who had ordered the very bag of cannabis Raj received and was charged over and who said he had received a bag of tobacco instead. While the court first dismissed the two inmates’ testimonies as too incredible to be true, Raj’s conviction was ultimately overturned last year by the supreme court. 

Citing Raj’s narrow escape from the gallows, activists warn that the stakes are too high when it comes to the death penalty to have any room for doubt.

“I’ve often met families who have so many questions about why their loved one got the death penalty,” says Han. “It’s very hard to accept that in Singapore, people can still be put to death even when these question marks exist.”

“When the penalty is as harsh as the death penalty, no margin of error should be tolerated. An innocent person executed cannot be brought back, and no amount of compensation to their loved ones is going to change that.”

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