November 14, 2013, Singapore – The Singapore Anti-death Penalty Campaign and We Believe In Second Chances welcome today’s decision by Justice Choo Han Teck to spare former drug mule Yong Vui Kong from the gallows. It has always been our position that Yong, a young, first-time offender, deserves a second chance. We are relieved he will not have to pay the ultimate price for his mistake. However his punishment remains a heavy one – Yong will now have to serve a life sentence and receive 15 strokes of the cane.
Today’s verdict was possible because of recent changes to Singapore’s death penalty regime. While we are glad that the amendments have given judges a restricted amount of discretion where they used to have none, we would also like to echo Justice Choo who on October 25, 2013, pointed out that the new law might be problematic in providing defendants a fair process in meeting requirements that need to be fulfilled, before they are eligible for a re-sentencing hearing.
Under the amendments, the death penalty is no longer mandatory for those convicted in drug trafficking cases if the accused is no more than a courier and if the prosecution certifies that he or she rendered substantial assistance to the Central Narcotics Bureau.
The Court only determines whether the two requirements are met after the accused person is convicted. However, as Justice Choo noted, if evidence relating to whether the accused was a courier is introduced after he is convicted, there is a possibility that this could contradict the court’s original findings or even cast doubts on the accused’s guilt.
Disallowing this evidence on the other hand, might prejudice the accused, making it impossible for him to prove he was just a courier. Justice Choo suggested that an alternative would be to make it a rule that evidence be produced at trial. However, this puts the accused in a tough position – in order to make the claim that he was just a courier, he must first admit he was trafficking drugs.
Either way, the accused person may potentially be disadvantaged in being able to discharge the burden of showing that the requirements have been met. This is unacceptable, especially since the punishment is mandatory death. We note that this problem would not persist should full discretion be given to judges to decide on the punishment, and we reiterate our calls for this to be so.
We also question whether the caning of those who have already received a life sentence, is necessary. As Yong’s lawyer, M Ravi, pointed out in Court today, his client is “a pale shadow of the person he was four years ago. He has little fat. He is weak and frail.” Given Yong’s poor health, we hope that the Prison or the Courts will be extra vigilant in meting out any punishment to him. Moreover, it is important to note that only 33 jurisdictions around the world allow the caning of convicted offenders. Most civilised countries consider the punishment to be a barbaric one.
Furthermore, we would like to point out that the deterrent effect of the death penalty over alternative forms of punishment is unproven. Furthermore, the penalty is an irreversible punishment at the end of a process, which is subject to the fallibilities of humans. We may be able to release innocent persons from prison, but we cannot reverse their executions.
Finally, we join Yong’s family in expressing our deepest gratitude to his lawyer, M Ravi, for working so tirelessly and selflessly for his client these past four years. We know it has not been an easy journey and we are glad he never gave up.